Del Amitri Beat On the Bratwurst by Dominic Wills
Get on the bus, why don’tcha. There you’ll find Scot-rockers Del Amitri on their way through Germany absorbing the culture and discussing their oeuvre. Which leaves just enough time for the farting competitions and getting totally blootered. Result!
There are only three rules – and only one is never broken. Do not leave your baggage in everyone else’s way. Do not interfere with anyone when they’re in their bunk (that’s their space) . And, above all, do not shit in the toilet. The chemicals – sweet, cloying and clearly deadly – stink enough as it is. That’s us told, then.
VOX is on the bus with Del Amitri, million-selling Scottish bar-room rockers, as the European stage of their world tour moves relentlessly on from Hamburg to Cologne and Frankfurt. This means 14 of us living in two tiny lounges – eating, drinking and jabbering on the bus sleeping and suffering on the bus. Anything goes on the bus except defecation. That’s the rules.
In Hamburg, VOX catches up with the Del Boys backstage at the Grosse Freiheit just off the infamous Reeperbahn. There’s a brief group get- together over dinner (soup and Stroganoff, mercifully sausage-free) then the two original members and songwriters, singer/bassist Justin Currie and guitarist Iain Harvie leave for a brief burst of interviews. These they conduct separately, lest their teutonic questioners be thrown into confizsion by the collision of two East Kilbride accents. They eat fast. There’s barely enough time to notice that Currie’s legendary fringe and sideboards have been brutally shorn.
Denied the main men, VOX slips off for ludicrously large beers with the two most recent arrivals in Faznily Del Amitri – drummer Mark Price, once of folk-metallers All About Eve, and Kris Dollimore, ex-guitarist with London Punks The Godfathers. The Reeperbahn is grimly glamorous, sex-obsessed and money-grabbing, like Oxford Street with a hard-on. Crazily attractive Amazons of no fixed gender, each cuddling a tiny, yapping hound, mingle with the all-too-plain members of innumerable coach parties. The place is heaving.
Upon his retum, the irrepressibly curious Currie has a tale to tell about the natives, in particular one friend-of-a-friend named Raj Queen Of The East, an almost-woman awaiting her final, dick-ridding operation. It was said she was beautiful, witty regal – he was extremely keen to meet her. Until one night she staggered by, down this very same street, a haggard, steaming monster dragging a straight boy by the arm and screaming: “You’re coming home with me!”
“It’s rumoured,” says Currie with a deliberately inscrutable smile “that, once you’ve had enough beers, you don’t really care. Like ‘Fuck, I’ll try anything once. “‘
Dollimore, bristling madly, is not convinced. Currie now wonders aloud at the function of the little dogs. Maybe the way you touch the animal is cop-baffling code for the kind of sex you require from its owner. Like, if you reach underneath and vigorously wiggle your German wrist, it means… but that way madness lies.
After a gig packed to the rafters with an unbelievably enthusiastic crowd, everyone is buoyant, busily caning the cheese, beer and salami. Harvie stands sweatily outside the dressing-room, laughing and doing major damage to his share of the rider- a 12-year-old bottle of Glenlivet. Harvie is a masterful swiller of good whisky, beginning with measured sips from a glass then gravitating rapidly to full-blown swigs from the bottle itself. Despite his violently intimidating looks, all hair and intensity, the booze does not make him mean, just wicked then tired. On a search for bratwurst, he leads us down a barred-off, men-only street where naked whores ply their trade in candle-lit windows, rapping on the glass with ringed fingers to catch the attention of punters. Sensing discomfort, Harvie leads us on into a hardcore TV bar, chuckling into his beer as the regulars manually test our arses for, well, whatever they test arses for on the Reeperbahn these days.
Back on the bus, the bratwurst is wolfed, the autographs signed – each German fan bringing at least a dozen items to be monikered – and the vehicle departs. One crew member (each of them wears a purple-ish laminate proclaiming ‘It Wasnae Me’, a famous Scottish admission of guilt) reveals the fruits of his shopping spree – a selection box of dildos and some dirty mags so surreal they hardly constitute pom: Young And Old is one title, another shows an obese woman comically raping a male model. Empowerment a-go-go.
Conversation is fast and loose. Currie in particular flits through a bewildering variety of topics. More whisky is nailed, plus vodka and bottle upon bottle of red wine. Then Harvie reveals another darker rule, this time not limited to the bus. There must be no Shag Sabotage – “There’s no turning up when someone’s got some woman drunk and being all suave (pointedly pronounced swahvey).”
Since Harvie has been living with the same woman in Madrid for five years, and Currie and most of the others are in firm relationships, this crime is rare. Yet one of the crew was recently up before the Del Amitri court, having interrupted an early-moming ‘shag scenario’ with the fateful words, “I’m going for breakfast.”The case hung on whether he also uttered the spoiling phrase, “Anyone else want to come?” With Currie as his defence lawyer, he was quickly condemned. “Well,” argues Currie, “I cannae give of my best when their case is so miserably flawed.”
A quick and very late snoop round the bus reveals the required video-viewing to be Reservoir Dogs, Prizzi’s Honour and The Long Goodbye, CD listening being the latest from Bjork, Portishead and Rammstein, a hugely popular and risibly overblown German cod-metal band. Then finally the sepulchral bunk, and an attempt to sleep in the knowledge that, should you wake and sit up in the night, you will surely break your nose.
Cologne’s old town, today crammed with football fans and those arriving for tomorrow’s marathon, has been tastefully rebuilt, the pre-war skyline lovingly reconjured. The atmosphere is warm and it reflects in the show when, at the Wartesaal, in the shadow of the monolithic cathedral, Del Amitri approach their very best. Currie is the focus, whether fretting, stamping in time or racing across the stage in a frantic effort to expend energy. Harvie stands in a proud, straight-backed Lemmy pose, only slightly undermined by his occasional beatific beam. Like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Dollimore picks and thrashes at his guitar. Behind them, keyboardist Andy Alston is a study in concentration and, beside him, Price plays with a force this band needs and has often lacked.
The set-list contains the very best of Del Amitri’s four (Top Ten) albums for A&M – ‘Waking Hours’ (1989), ‘Change Everything’ ( 1992), Twisted’ (1995) and this year’s ‘Some Other Sucker’s Parade’. Consequently, we’re bombarded by the Deep South grind of ‘Just Like A Man’; the mournful triumphalism of ‘Move Away Jimmy Blue’; the ultra-romance of the folky, accordion-accompanied ‘Be My Downfall’. Like them or not, these songs are (mostly) cannily written and at least half are instantly memorable. The crowd knows every word. The experience is uplifting, hugely entertaining and often moving, rnuch like watching Soul Asylum at the time of ‘Grave Dancers Union’.
After the show, the band is understandably buzzing. It’s Saturday night and, down by the river, the bars are jammed. The bunch of us battle our way past the burly drunkards bopping on the straining tables. Carrying beers through here will not be easy. That is till the ever-resourceful Currie discovers the establishment’s coolest feature – enormous wooden paddles with carved holes for ten glasses. He holds one like a battering-ram, aims at our table and goes for it, the crowd parting, as if he were some Pils-soaked Moses. It’s here that Harvie explains why Del Amitri, like the Jesus And Mary Chain before them, should come out of East Kilbride sounding so deeply American.
“Yeah, well a lot of American music came from Scottish folk music, so there’s been a lot of cross-fertilisation there. With us though, I think we’re more influenced by The Faces, particularly the acoustic stuff, and that was drawing on English folk. Maybe it’s the voice. You can’t get away with singing in a Scottish accent like you can with a Manc accent, or a London one. You need to find a neutral accent and, because no Scotsman’s ever gonna sing in an English accent, that immediately plonks you down somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. Irish bands are the same. Not even Van Morrison sings in an Irish accent.”
Currie has his own take on this. “Going to America changed my life – more than doing acid, or having sex for the first time. For us, in 1986, it was the land of opportunity. We had no *money*. We borrowed a van and managed to tour for six weeks, stealing food, sleeping on people’s floors. It spelt freedom, but alongside that was chaos. People on the street with Uzis – madness. I dunno, maybe all Scottish singersjust wanna be Rod Stewart with a big villa in the Hollywood hills.”
But the occasionally poignant rock’n’roll shambles of The Faces was not their reference point to start with. “No,” says Harvie, “when we started we were a shit, horrible band. We really thought there was a manifesto to it all, that you had to be original to the point where it was painful. We’d never use distortion because it was too rock’n’roll. Our original ambition was to be like a cross between Orange Juice and Captain Beefheart. It wasn’t a very pleasant noise we made and,” he laughs, “I don’t think we enjoyed making it that much.”
If there’s one thing that stands out in people’s minds about Del Amitri – Harvie with his beard and straggly locks, Currie with that fringe and those sidies, the modesty, the down-at-heel, heartstring-twanging ballads – it’s how incomparably uncool they are. They even have a ‘Creep’-style Unhipster Anthem in ‘I’m Not Where It’s At’.
“Most of it’s to do with the first hit we had, ‘Nothing Ever Happens’,” says Harvie, “which I think a lot of people really hated. You know that Room 101 programme, where people list ten things they despise? Some comedian, Alexei Sayle maybe, said that track would be played in his Room 101. And I could quite sympathise with that.” You what? This is beyond modesty. This is unadulterated honesty. How un-’97 is that?
“Well, it’s a really good song but there is something unspeakably naff about it. And there’s an unwritten rule that, when half the populace really likes a song, the other half will absolutely detest it. Like Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’. That’ll keep him in beer all his life, but it makes my teeth hurt, I hate it.”
Harvie closes his eyes, and bending from the waist slowly lowers his forehead to the table, all the while emitting a long, low groan. Harakiri, though seldom witnessed in German bars, must seem this desperate, this deliberate. He raises his shaggy head and bursts into guffaws infectious even by the standards of his raucous nation. There is an innocence here, and a full-on SFW attitude. Harvie knows the score. Still, it must be irritating to be denied the respect meted out to bands with a similar approach to theirs. Like Teenage Fanclub.
“Beats me why that happens. Teenage Fanclub are good mates of ours, and musically they seem like soulmates. But they’re miles away from us in terms of how they’re seen. I’m sure it’s to do with their label, Creation. I mean, Creation is hip, and for all the right reasons ‘cos they’ve always put out great records.” He considers for a moment. “The Great Mystery of Del Amitri… Why are they so uncool?” Currie, typically sees a good side to this. “We need to be the underdogs. It’s that Manchester United attitude – no matter how pre-eminent they are, they play better when they think everyone hates them.”
Back on the bus, on the way down the Rhine to Frankfurt, Dollimore (now revealed as a 20-a-day cigarette ponce and suspected lighter thief) has clearly been disturbed by the tale of Raj, Queen Of The East. In his dreams last night, he says, a man with a gun entered his hotel room. He was going to kill Kris, but first he was going to fuck him. “What difference does it make?” the guy asked. “You’re gonna die anyway.”
Currie who, for some reason has purchased a supremely ugly furry duck from a service-station, is dwelling on easier matters. Like the Fall fanzine he once put together, how he might conside: sleeping with a superstar just for the story (Shag-A-Nory it’s called in polite circles) and the time Del Amitri supported the then-hot Smiths at an unlicensed show for youngsters. The lights went down, the inexperienced crowd erupted, and the Dels were buried beneath a fragrant wave of gladioli. Their mistake realised, the audience fell into sullen, silent disappointment and, once finished, Currie and Harvie were forced to hand the flowers back to their ungrateful owners. How low can you go?
He goes on to discuss pop, his own efforts to make something beautiful within its strict parameters, and the way he sometimes treats tracks as writing exercises – ‘Little Luck’ being a Nick Cave-style murder ballad, and ‘Roll To Me’, their last US Top Ten single, purposefully aping Paul McCartney in its use of melody and intervals. Then he talks about his lyrics and the little victories and disappointments they describe.
“A lot of the songs are about The Moment,” he explains. “There’s a line on ‘Opposite View’ (from ‘Waking Hours ) that goes ‘Every precious second is a chance to change/The present tense is perfect baby, let’s rearrange it”. It’s about relishing now. A lot of pop songs are about love, but ours are more saying: ‘It’s love if it’s good *that moment*. Maybe that’s a horribly flighty male thing to say, and it probably betrays a great lack of commitment on my part, but I do think to be really free you have to ignore the future.”
If that is a horribly male thing to say, then it’s strange coming from Currie, many of whose lyrics are, if not directly anti-male, then certainly unafraid to confront male fallibilities. “It’s not an ‘Iron John’ thing,” he says. “That’s bullshit. But I would like to write songs that make men go: ‘Yeah, yeah, that is weird. It’s no coincidence that one of the peaks of each show, where Currie, no matter how sick or tired, truly rises to the occasion, is the aggressively sensitive ‘Just Like A Man’.
Currie reckons himself a bit of a drama queen, he likes to inject his songs with melodrama. And quite rightly so. None of the wretches peopling his stories would believe anyone else had ever felt pain like theirs (which of us does?). But he’s not simply dealing in the shock of emotional disasters, he’s too bright for that. “A lot of our songs,” he says, “exist in an area of misunderstanding. That’s really my interest. Not the big events like car crashes and babies being born, but the trouble and confusion in between.”
Currie’s interest in his work and himself seems at times obsessive. Since that can be hurtful to others, you wonder whether he considers himself a good person. “No, no. But I justify my selfishness by thinking that, if I write just one song that makes someone cry in Idaho, then it doesn’t matter so much that I’ve been a c**t to all my friends.”
Christ, you don’t seem that bad.
“Well, I don’t think I’be ever made someone happy in a relationship. I’m better at the moment, but I know there’ll come a crunch in this relationship when I’ll have to consider my priorities, and my top priority will always be me and writing songs. Having kids, all the rest, are just trimmings. I have deliberately messed things up to give myself space to write.”
Have you ever left someone because it’d make a great song?
“No. Oh God, no. That’d be sick. Absolutely sick.”
Nevertheless, there is a certain harshness to some of Currie’s lyrics. ‘Empty’ for instance, is a letter to the recently dumped partner of his current lover. ‘Be My Downfall’ concerns his choosing a passionate bedmate over a faithful girlfriend. It’s the kind of thing he thinks about often. “Yeah, I’m completely fascinated by jealousy. I went out with a really insecure girl for two-and-a-half years and I felt nothing but pity when she’d be there accusing me of all this fantastic nonsense, just because she’d slipped into this dark, dark hole. I’m not sure I’ve ever been jealous myself.”
Sounds like you’ve never been in love.
He pauses. “That’s… yeah… there’s probably a lot of truth in that. I could, probably, never have experienced that kind of passion for somebody because I probably love myself too much. I’m the youngest in the family and deeply emotionally secure. I don’t need anybody to love me. That’s not being conceited, it’s like an accident of my upbringing.”
Considering your avowed intent of living for the moment, have you ever ended relationships too soon, missed out on the ups and downs?
“Yeah, maybe. Maybe I’m just really shallow. But I do really like the idea of being old and surrounded by ex-lovers. We should all do it. Why be a lonely 90-year-old whose wife is dead from cancer when you could just invite all your ex’s over for dinner. Really, I think that might even bring back a sense of community.” He laughs uproariously, delighted both by the facetiousness of this, and the fact that it all might well be true.
The Batschkapp venue is way outside Frankfurt but still packed. The Dels’ performance, given the earlier excess, is muted but enough. Without the studio sheen, they’re so much more of what they want to be. Afterwards Currie, who’s spent all day in his bunk protecting his voice, quickly recovers his spirits. He chats happily about how hard it is to stay off the sauce while on tour. Price and Dollimore take us through their last fart-tennis match (PARP! Fifteen-love. PARP! Fifteen-all, etc) and much red wine, according to a sarky Currie the ’97 hipster’s poison, is sunk. Then there’s the Glenlivet, generously shared by Harvie.
The next journey, this time to Munich, is 300 miles and Del Amitri are gone by 2.30am, taking the revelry with them. That gig is sold out, and will be jumping, as will every date on their November UK tour, particularly the fearsomely partisan nights at Glasgow’s Barrowlands. Unhip sure but, shit, what a laugh.”
Submitted by Dave and Wendy