Danbert Nobacon once dumped a pitcher of ice water on the head of the Deputy Prime minister, wrote a fairy tale about environmental cataclysm, and was one of the first guys to dis the Clash… and, oh yeah, he's also a founding member of Chumbawamba and is one of the most influential anarcho-punks of all time… and oh, yeah, he's still doing his thing.
Nobacon recently released Stardust to Darwinstuff, under the name Danbert Nobacon & The Axis of Dissent. The record finds Nobacon in classic form, cranking out jams about how the environment is being plundered and polluted just so a few rich people can get a few more bucks. But despite the heavy subject matter, Nobacon keeps that wry Chumba sing-songy humor in the cracks as he calls out people on their bullshit. Punknews' John Gentile spoke to Nobacon about the new release, the ice water incident, and a top secret record that only the most hardcore Chumba fans have in their collection…
Do you remember when you first got into music? I was born in the early 1960s. So, I was coming up as a young teenager in the early 1970s, so that was before punk. At the time, in England, it was like prog rock- Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Yes, Genesis, those bands. I secretly dreamt of being in those bands, but I had the misconception that you had to be a musical genius to play in those bands and then punk rock came and blew all of that away. Forget that! Yeah! Punk rock! You can just get a guitar and play three chords and get a song going. That literally changed me life and has ever since. We had a high school band and then I went off to college and we started Chumbawamba in 1982.
Was the high school band Chimp Eats Banana? Yes!
Did you ever record anything as Chimp Eats Banana? We did an album, but it was a cassette only album. I think you can find a lot of the tracks on Youtube. It was called The Cardboard Box. P.I.L. had just released the Metal Box and one of the guys’ Dad owned a shoe shop, so he had a lot of these shoe boxes around so we put it in a shoebox with loads of other things.
Now, you were a fan of the Clash and the Sex Pistols, correct? Oh, yeah! I never saw the Sex Pistols but I saw the Clash a few times and a lot of those bands- Buzzcocks and Slits. The three of us, who became the founding members of Chumbawamba. We went off to college but alls we did was bunk off lessons and go see shows around the country. We really got into like the Fall and some of the weirder bands- Mekons, Gang of Four. When we started thinking that we should form another band, we had seen Crass a few times, and thought they were impressive, and Margaret Thatcher went to war, so that politicized us. So, we started putting politics in the music and that shifted direction. We fell into the anarcho-punk scene 1982, 83, 84, and we were playing a lot of benefits, shows at squats and peace camps. As now, there are a lot of people that don’t really give a shit about any other people.
But, Chumbawamba took some shots at the Clash! Did you have mixed feelings about that? Yeah, it was because the Clash kind of blew everything away- not just the Clash, other bands as well. In retrospect, they only lasted like five years and made five albums or whatever. They just burnt out because the industry sucked them in. We wrested that, and of course, Chumbawamba wrestled with that as well, because we were on a major label. I have deep respect for the Clash and they did what they tried to do. If we were angry little punkers it was us just sending a jab and entering into the wider conversation.
You all were onBullshit Detector 2. Was that a big thrill for you? It was a big thrill! We had seen the previous Bullshit Detector and we just recorded a couple songs and sent them off, not thinking we would even get on, but we did. As a result of being on there, we wrote to all the bands and did another cassette tape release compilation and that was The Animals Packet and it was all about animals’ rights. Through communicating with some of those other bands, we started doing shows with them. One of the bands was The Passion Killers, and both Darren and Mavis from the Passion Killers ended up joining Chumbabwama. The fact that we reached out to these bands and we all had a scene for a little wile and it was pretty cool.
Long has there been rumours about the mysterious Chumbawamba release Jesus H. Christ which is a version of the Shhh album with uncleared samples. Is it bootleg? Do you know who released it? We did not release it. We know who released it. We were cool with it, “yeah go ahead and release it.” We couldn’t officially do it ourselves. We had our own label, but we were distributed by Southern records, who distributed Crass and Flux of Punk Indians. We didn’t want to get them in the shit because they would have been legally responsible for letting these records get out there. So, it had to be some third party who wasn’t connected.
You quite famously dumped water and ice on the head of the John Pescott, Deputy Prime Minister of England in 1998 at the BRIT awards. Right now, it’s a very divisive time in US politics, with politicians getting booed out of restaurants and things like that. The argument is- should would maintain a decorum wherein even if you disagree with me politically, we should maintain some decorum, or, are things so savage right now that physical interaction is ok? I’ve always felt that physical interaction is acceptable. Certainly, that was the most known about incident in my case. The Deputy Prime Minster is sort of like the Vice President of Britain. He probably has more power than the vice-president here. It was a huge deal and all the reporters showed up at me mum and dad’s house and me mum let them in and made some tea for them and they went away and then wrote all this shit about me. But, I think that was a classic example- John Prescott said, “Oh, you terrified me wife and daughter!” At that time, Prescott had the perception of being a working class guy because he used to be a merchant seaman. But at that very point in time he personally was selling out the Liverpool dockworkers who had been on strike and sending them down the river, so it was a protest about that.
The record company said, “You gotta apologize to Mr. Prescott’s wife!” We were like, “No way, we’re not sorry for what we did.” The record company sent flowers to them but we refused to apologize. Certainly as is happening now, people getting booed out of restaurants, that is perfectly valid. The people in power make decisions that has physical repercussions on people, the Trump administration and the GOP, repealing clean air laws, repealing clean water laws, giving free range to corporations- people will die because of that. So, if someone gets booed out of a restaurant for that, I think they are getting away lightly.
You talk about Prescott positioning himself as the “Working class guy,” all while exploiting the same people he claimed to protect. Trump did the same exact thing. Why is this such a powerful maneuver or approach? It’s funny, I just went to see Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911. Michael Moore is from Flint, where they privatized the water, and people were dying and being poisoned, and Obama went a drank a glass for water and pretended it was ok because big corporations were able to make a lot of money at people’s expense.
I think it has come to a stage, since Ronald Reagan and maybe before, a b-list actor, became president, at least he had some experience as a Governor. He was kind of a buffoon, but because people knew who he was, they gave him more trust than he deserved. Trump is an extreme example. Because the media is 95% owned by billionaires, all the free publicity that Trump got, got him elected. Billions and billions of dollars of free publicity. Every word out his mouth caused outrage or “yeah, he really is for us blue collar workers!”- if that really is the message 24-7, and blue collar workers who work forty, sixty hours a week, three jobs a week just to put food on the table, and if the only news source they are getting is in quick news bites, it works. You can study it scientifically and it works. they are just trying to plant a seed of an idea in someone’s head. It’s a clever, manipulative game and it works because the way media is owned. We do have social media and underground media, which can undercut that, but you have to go out of your way to find underground news sources.
Even though you new band and Chumbawamba focused on some very heavy topics, there is always a sort of whimsy that crops up. Is that by design, to make the message more digestible? The first three records, singles, we did were like angry punk rock, and then the first album Pictures of Starving Children was pretty angry punk rock. We did have women in the band by then, which I think altered the sound. It kind of balanced out some of the anger and they could sing, so we said it’s part of who we are, so we’ll use this. Also, we grew up on pop music – the Beatles. After going through the initial punk rock phase of rejecting everything, it was ”well, actually, some of these songs are really cool.” Frank Zappa was saying these really cool things on his earliest records. So, we started rediscovering our musical history and influences. And it grew from six people to eight, so that influenced the sound.
Before we did a record, we sit down and decide what e wanted to do, what we wanted to sound like, did we want to say anything? After the angry albums, we went the opposite direction and did an acapella folk album - English Rebel Songs which are these old songs from history. Folk music, totally political. Some people loved it. After that, te whole dance thing happened in England. The fourth album was influenced by dance music. Some punk rockers had thought that we just went completely disco. But, we were saying some important things, a sum of all the influences. From an artistic influence, we loved the Beatles, and every album, they tried to do something a little different, so we tried to change it up every album. We shifted in direction that maybe some of the bands from our generations didn’t. So it was conscious in some ways.
Your new album has the reoccurring theme of science or environmental issues. Is science under attack by dark age thinking? It’s funny, in amongst being in Chumbawamba, the first ten years, we had other jobs. During that time in Chumbawamba, I went back to school to study children’s play. The scientific study of why humans and animals play. Before we went full time, I almost went into that. So, I’ve always sort of kept in touch reading what you might call popular science books. In the last ten years I’ve read a lot of books about human evolution and I teach theater, and I try to teach a little bit about why we make it art. It helped us survive as a species way back when so we could find ways to communicate with each other, which is the exact opposite of what the patriarchy has been telling us. “It’s dog eat dog! Every man for himself!”
So, when I thought about doing this record, which was before trump got elected, I found that some of the scientific imagery affected my writing. Then, I realized that I should do a science album. We were recording the album and went over the deadline and Trump comes along and gets elected to everyone’s horror and surprise- I didn’t think he’d get elected. I had the chance to change some of the lyrics and I brought in a song from a previous album, “Revolution 9.1” and made it happen about what just happened in America. I think that science has always been under attack from the GOP and Trump, as well.
I mean, it is actually under attack, now. They are cutting funding for NASA and climate monitoring, the things that are essential to our survival, they’re attacking. They’re doing the opposite and giving tax breaks to fossil fuel. So, I think it is supremely important that we defend science.
And when I say science, like anything, like punk rock, it can be undermined by capitalism. The application of science is responsible for some really bad shit- nuclear weapons, military application. But, the scientific method is not an ideology. You can test it. Drop a rock anywhere in the world and it falls to the ground. Gravity exists. So, pure science in the curious investigative method to get to the truth of some phenomena is vitally important for our survival as a species, considering what we do to the planet.
In my opinion, in my humble opinion, I think politicians should take advice from scientists, instead of politicians being able to shut down funding for science, because it conflicts with Exxon making how many billions of dollars.
On the new album, you’ve got a lyric, “I’m sorry, but karma won’t save us.” So, you don’t believe in any of that kind of stuff, correct? It’s funny, I’m from Northern England, but now I live on the West Coast of the states, and there’s the cliché that the west coast is more influenced by Hippie stuff and East Religion. I had this argument in a bar about Chevron, as it turned out. What they were doing in Ecuador and poisoning the forest. I said if Karma exists, they would be shut down and thrown in jail. This other person said, “we don’t need to worry about that, because karma will make everything work out.” Maybe I’m short sighted, but I see rich people getting away with whatever they want and they’re going to keep getting away with it. There’s no karmic reaction. The only way it’s gonna get shut down is if we stand together and shut them down.
I’ve got a sort of perception that it seems to me that people who are especially greedy, or especially cruel, or they don’t “do unto to others,” they seem to have better luck than other people. Do you agree with that? I kind of do. I don’t know if it’s better- I don’t know if they are happy. But, they get away with so much. Like Donald Trump, his dad was kind of wealthy, they just think they are entitled to do whatever they want because that is the culture they grow up in. Kavanaugh is another one. You see in the media all the time, with celebrity, it’s the modern day equivalent of royalty. So, when someone like Kapernick takes a kneel at a NFL game, it really stands out that this ideal world, that we can only “embrace” from afar- it’s cool when people say that it’s not what it appears to be. The whole celebrity thing, the circus, keeps what’s actually happening in the world out of the spotlight.
Look at Kavanaugh, from that world, is in the spotlight as he should be, for how he has abused his position as a man in his past, but the women who suffered at his hands are still suffering. He should be taken to task. He never should have become a supreme court judge. Trump never should have become president.
I teach in a high school and we have to do a police check, which is cool. Trump couldn’t even get a job in a high school, with his record, yet he’s the most powerful man in the world, supposedly.
You brought in Miranda Zickler on the new album, who is a great singer So, I’ve always written songs. Some of them never see the light of day. I usually want to get a full band and get other people to sing on it. Miranda is in a band called Kuinka and I used to book shows at a brewpub near here. And we got chatting after an arts festival held here, and I got some of their CDs, and just through Facebook, I asked her if she wanted to sing on the new album and she was like “yeah, cool.” I’m actually redoing an album I did a while ago called Woebegone which I did in sort of a Tom Waits style, but I can’t listen to it. I brought it back intot he studio and re-recorded some parts and have Miranda singing on it, and I’m much happier with it. I hope to have it out soon.
What should we do to make the world a better place? I think whatever your field of experience is, or your community, we have to stand up and be counted, especially in these times. Whether you’re a scientist or a teacher or an artist, we have a responsibility as a community- by that I mean the whole planet, because if we fuck the atmosphere we’re all fucked- we have a reasonability to improve people’s standing. We shouldn’t be a society where one percent of the people own ninety percent of the wealth. We need to democratize the wealth which means we need a fairer system for distributing things. We need to respect where things come from.
We don’t need to be making plastic crap that is thrown away once you take it out of the wrapping. I mean, we already know this. Science already tells us that we need to be more sustainable. Any ways in which we can improve people’s living conditions, the concept of fairness and equality and community, I think are important. There are many ways to do that. The mainstream media owned by billionaires tries to shut that down, so we have to find ways around that- art and music is one of them, and that’s kind of my specialty.