“Music is more than music. It’s a lifestyle, it’s an attitude and it’s an approach… We wouldn’t carry on if we didn’t think we still had something to prove. So we carry on, because there’s still a story there to be put straight.”
Tjinder Singh at length about how his experiences with all sizes of record companies informed his band’s own Ample Play label, how Cornershop still works to be understood two decades into their career, longing for the return of the joys of doing something – or nothing – in a café, and how his own upbringing still informs his writing through political and societal shifts. Oh yeah, and the perennial need to tamp down “Spandex trouser” fretwork.
PS: Not that you could have known it when you were planning everything, but the release of England is a Garden turned out to be interestingly timed – the record reached the public right as the COVID-19 pandemic took over the world. You guys gave up touring a few years back, so I don’t believe gigs were cancelled as a result, but did the pandemic change the way you approached this record’s promotional cycle?
Tjinder: Only in that there were more Zoom interviews. It didn’t actually put a stop to what we were doing, because everyone was in the full swing of preparation. Ultimately, it meant less photographs and seeing fewer people – so that was quite nice. [Laughter] It is nice to do interviews, but it also is often the same thing, so it can be quite tiring. Fortunately for us, the COVID isolation that everyone suffered made people have to listen to things – and our album got listened to quite a lot because of it. I think we were more lucky in terms of the timing, because all of the vinyl and the CDs had been ordered, and they were all manufactured in Germany. Although Germany is having a rise in its COVID figures now, it wasn’t as bad as England at the time, which was treacherous – and still is, as far as I’m concerned.
That idea of “having to listen” is interesting, because I think the way the world has gone in terms of digesting albums, you get so much music electronically now and these algorithms that try to influence your taste. “Hey, you like this? You might like this,” and people get programmed to look for a hook that grabs them within 30 seconds, or the things that will immediately sit with them instead of making them skip ahead. I don’t know if moving around and always being on the go exacerbates that – rather than being home and having the time to put something on a turntable and absorb it.
Well, we’re from that past where you would sit down and listen to an album and see what people are saying from the start to the finish, what was in between, why it was in between and how it was done. We’ve always approached every album like that, for it to be a total sort of – although we hated the word – “concept.” The album is a concept because when it’s done in the way that it used to be done, you’re hearing more than just a bit of music. You’re hearing an art form put together. I mean, we do like some of the technology. It does help in terms of time, but it also is quite easy for people to just flick to the next thing. The experience becomes very different.
Throughout your entire career, you held true to that traditional template of putting a 7-inch single out, or a 12-inch single and LP out, as opposed to only relying on the CD or the MP3. In terms of setting up your own label, how did it feel for you to become, you know, basically a “label exec?” I mean, it facilitates your own projects and those of artists you like, but did it make you approach the business side differently? It seems like you’d always been a bit more hands-on with promotion and distribution anyway.
It was fairly easy to step into this world, although we didn’t want to step into it – that’s why we’re in a band. But, unfortunately for us, we’re a band that’s not so easy to understand. Over the years, we’ve done our own videos, synopses, press releases – because no one understands the tracks. Maybe they might have some inkling, but more than more often than not, the labels didn’t get it or weren’t brave enough, so you have to sort of do that yourself anyway. The backgrounds we have also helped. I mean, I used to work at Wiija [Cornershop’s first label] when I first moved to London, and I also worked at reception for Beggars Banquet and did odd jobs there as well. Ben [Ayers] has done production control at a record pressing plant for quite a few years, then he got us to be production control at Beggars Banquet. Plus I’ve always sort of managed the group anyway. When we started Ample Play, the technology side was in flux, and no one really knew what the hell was going on with digital downloads. The idea of going to a label that knew less than what we knew was ridiculous. I think we would have liked to have been with a label that we thrived with. Generally, we’ve had some very good experiences with labels – we’ve been on an independent label, the smallest of the small, medium labels and major labels. So we’ve had the whole view of how different labels work. And because we were getting on as a group anyway, it didn’t matter to us to be doing less in terms of scale, because that suited us as well. We did our own stuff and slowly moved into putting other artists out.
Well, with Cornershop, if you look at the band’s timeline and you only look at the “albums proper,” you see some gaps. But I mean if you look at the singles, the collaborations, the projects under other names, you guys are working pretty consistently. It’s not like you’re in hiding for 10 years at a time. I would imagine that having Ample Play allows you to not only give a signal boost to some of these artists you like but also maybe indulge some of your own creative whims that might not have happened with another label.
Well, the phrase you used was, “If you look at,” and unfortunately, most people don’t look. They don’t see it and so when a Cornershop album comes out, they just think, “Well, God, where have they been? What have they done?” In terms of the other artists we put out, we see that as an extension of us, because we only put it out because we like it – whether that’s from Japan, France, America, England. If we liked it, we would we put it out. We sort of burnt out a little, because we did work at a hell of a high level for a lot of years. We did it as a labor of love, and it was very heavy labor. But managing the label was actually something that I felt was a halfway house to doing something in the industry and not getting too tired or wound up by things.
Given your perspective on how music distribution has changed over the past two decades, have you personally seen improvements or is it more detrimental to the way people absorb music?
With technology, I think speed has been gained and the ability to create has been increased manifold. But with that increase in production and output, there’s also the problem that everyone is making music the same way and using the same software. We’re in a sea of everything sounding very, very similar. That wasn’t the case before – you’d have to hunt stuff down, and you might even have to travel to get certain records. Nowadays, it’s just in front of you. We are saturated in terms of what is new and what is exciting. I listen to my sons talk about music, and whereas we would have talked about the difference between skinheads and punks – listening to the different types of music that they would listen to – theirs is a variation on different types of drum-and-bass because of the tempo. The culture of music itself has sort of changed. To me, it’s not something that you wear on your sleeve, or the way that you put together attire or live your life as much as it was before. Music was an outlet for the way that you were feeling. Now it’s not. Culture has changed so much with this technology that it might be more exciting to drink a certain kind of coffee in a certain café – maybe listening to some music that you don’t mind. But you’re more interested in the coffee and the ambience than the actual music. Obviously, there’s always going to be the 1 percent of people that do very, very well, because technology is loud and more people can hear things on a much larger worldwide scale than ever before. But whether that that’s making a better culture and some better people, I don’t know.
Does it change the way that you and Ben actually approach recording? I feel like I can put on a Cornershop song – whether it’s “Roof Rack,” or “Sleep on the Left Side,” or “St Marie Under Canon” or “Judy Sucks a Lemon For Breakfast” – and there’s a connection. They don’t feel defined by the year or era they came out – “This is obviously 1997” or something. It seems like there’s a conscious effort to avoid dating your music.
I don’t think it has changed, because I’m the one who does the writing. So all the ideas are from the same source. Now, personally, I wouldn’t have thought that about the songs that you mentioned – I can see the difference because I can see the back end of those songs. But what’s nice is that you said that you see the seam between them. I think with the last album, that lineage got a bit thicker. It sort of wraps the whole catalog more closely knit together, which is not something that we necessarily thought we were working towards. But by the passage of time, that’s the sort of thing that’s come out.
Soon after we started, I worked with samplers, and now you can just do that on a computer. I always like working in a café – when I was growing up, my aspiration was to just be able to take a portable computer and go to a café. That dream came true. I used I go to cafes so much around here that the people think I do nothing – to the extent that some people get annoyed that they’d see me in three cafes in a day or whatever – which again, is quite nice. They don’t need to know what you’re doing. Sometimes I am doing nothing. Now, because of all this COVID going on, I haven’t been able to and going to the café is an experience I’m looking forward to get getting back to. I’ve done absolutely nothing at home. With the album coming out, we sort of stepped off the gas a bit. What we should be doing is moving further ahead with being able to record remotely and not have to be there in person when other people are doing things.
Is that an important element of making music for you? Do you need to be present with someone to flesh out an idea or are you fine working remotely?
We’ve always done both. I’ve got a studio at home. All the Bubbley album [2011’s Cornershop Featuring Bubbley Kaur – And the Double-O Groove Of] was basically done at home, and then just transferred to the studio and mixed. Some keyboards were added at the studio, but other than that, the vocals were all done and the songs were actually done beforehand. There are some ideas that arrive solely because we’re in a studio environment and you can only get there with other people. It does vary and I do quite like the idea of meeting people. I’ve tried it without meeting people and sometimes – depending on who the person is – you do think, “My God, what happened? Why is it like that? Of all the choices they could have made at this point, what made them choose that?” If you’re not there, that’s what can happen. Things can go really wrong, and I think they tend to go more wrong than right when you’re not there. But maybe that’s also me. When we first started, we could have done a lot more flare-y solos and I always had to get Saffs [Anthony Saffery] to just rein everything in. If he did something that was too Spandex trouser, we had to take his Spandex off. Years after that, he phoned me up, and said, “You were absolutely right to have done that – it’s helped the longevity.” Those are the sort of things I look for when someone’s recording something. Not necessarily just what they’re doing, but what are they wearing.
Is that an attitude that you took from records you listened to early in life?
I think so. As I said, music is more than music. It’s a lifestyle, it’s an attitude and it’s an approach. You don’t want to be seen wearing the wrong jacket to the wrong gig. I think that’s in the makeup of the people we are. There’s also the intention of doing things, and all of a sudden, something grows into something that you just didn’t think would happen. There’s a series of tracks that are all in Punjabi that make for a nice compilation, and there’s a series of tracks that lean more sort of towards heavy rock, and they make for a sort of nice deviation or a compilation within themselves. There’s a series of songs with the word “wog” and they make for a more sort of cultural appreciation. You can’t do that intentionally over so many years. I think it only comes about because we’re trying to have integrity about what we’re doing.
There’s so much of your material that does comment on societal and political issues – directly or indirectly. Given the thrust of several countries moving to a more right-wing ideology over the past few years, as someone who’s observed and written about these issues for the better part of his career, is it dispiriting in any way that stuff you wrote 20 years ago is still relevant today?
Well, I grew up in the same town as Enoch Powell, who was a guru of a lot of the right-wing idiots in England at the moment. They aspire to the words he said and the hatred he espoused. But growing up in the same town as that idiot meant I was also growing up to the ramifications of it. That never really left me. Brexit was started by that idiot. My father always said, “Don’t ever think that you’ll be welcome here all the time. There will come a time they want you to get out.” With that being the backdrop, it’s really been a privilege to write on those topics and to do it for so long. The group took its direction when I was getting a lot of racist shit – not in the streets of Wolverhampton, but in the corridors of higher education, which was when I was working the union in the educational establishment. I’m not surprised it’s still there, because I had a whole year of racist shit in 1990 and that led to the whole direction of the group. It’s there, and it will be there unless the middle ground start to get their shit together – it will only be there longer and get stronger.
It seems to me that it’s another element that drives the “feel” of Cornershop. What you said earlier about labels or other people not “getting” the band, maybe it’s not easy music to define or put in a box. But the message and the sound and the performance seem more about striking a nerve in the listener.
We don’t really listen to other people – we never have because we don’t have to. Because we’re not musicians as such. We’re people who love music, and we dabble. We could have gone away and learned how to play guitar and how to play keyboards with a bit more dexterity, but there’s no point because that would fetch you someone else’s ideas. Just by the fact that you pick a guitar up a bit more, you have a natural tendency to create your own dexterity. That, I think, is better than to work really hard on learning an instrument.
Absolutely. One of the things that I love about “St Marie Under Canon” is the guitar in it. Now, please don’t take this as any disrespect, because it is perfect for that song and I don’t know that, in its rather basic form, it could be recreated as suitably by anyone else. You give it to Noel Gallagher, he’ll do something different, but it’s not going to fit what that song is. Again, that feeling – which I think drives a lot of your stuff. I still think about “Sleep on the Left Side” and how that song moves solely on the drum and fairly simple bassline – even though it’s not the prototypical “drum and bass” song.
It sort of reminds me that, well, anyone could have done a guitar. If Noel had done it, he would have put a lot more sustain on, and it’d be a different thing. But then you get to something that’s more than just a song – you start delving into the canvas and what’s underneath, the last layer of paint, and then you start thinking, “Well, why is the guitar like that? Why is it so simple?” I mean, there’s hardly any bass on “Sleep on the Left Side” – it’s actually just one of the samples that’s got a little more bottom end on the EQ than anything else. I think there’s more to be said about keeping something just very simple. That’s like what the Beatles did. They got a basic groove and stuck with it. They didn’t need to do anything more flowery than what George put to it. They’d never ever want anything too flowery, and there never needs to be, as far as we’re concerned. Even with Let it Be, they’re in control of things themselves. What I love about that recording is the background talking in between – someone telling the next person that they’re going to go to the chorus, the shouts and all that ad hoc stuff. That adds as much power to the palate as a jaunty little pop song.
I mean, this album took quite a long time to put together. And there were some amongst us who thought it would never come out. I think some among us don’t even know it’s out. [Laughter] But we did feel that we needed to make an impact and not allow anyone to easily fob it off. I think that’s what some of the past albums have, unfortunately, had leveled at them. But that’s another reason why we persevere. We wouldn’t carry on if we didn’t think we still had something to prove. So we carry on, because there’s still a story there to be put straight.
I’m interested in the idea of “delving into the canvas” in terms of Hold On, It’s Easy and revisiting your first album in that instrumental, lounge/easy listening fashion. How did that whole project come together?
I remember I was on an airplane with Alan Gregson, who’s our engineer and keyboardist, and asking him if he would want to do something like that, because he knows loads of musicians. For me, the idea was to do it in a very different form – it turned out to be easy listening – because even though the lyrics weren’t there, the melodies were and the songs were still prevalent. Even on that first album [1993’s Hold On It Hurts] the melodies were there. We might not have executed them as well as we could have, given the time and financial constraints at that point, being on an independent label and spending our own money. In England, they tried to kill us off with that album – that’s why we had to go to Europe. We still had belief in the melodies and we still thought that some of the songs were quite strong.
Did it make you reconsider the music in any way? So many bands are finding their feet on their first album, and it sounds like you had belief in the melodies from the get go, but did it come across as more melodic than you remembered?
It certainly did with all that instrumentation. Obviously one never imagines some of those instruments being used in their first take on the songs. Again, simplicity is the strength of the melody as well. It took a bit of time, and towards the end, it wasn’t sounding as strong as it could be, so we put on a second drummer, Andy Flynn, who also did quite a lot on the last album. He’s a genius drummer. That bolstered it and gave it a bit more backbone. There were some other tracks done as well, but we didn’t get around to finishing them. They weren’t necessarily done in an easy listening manner, but they were done in a different manner to what they were before. We do tend to get lost in different things. We’ll be doing something one week and then something like the Bubbley album comes along and takes us in a different direction. When that was finished, we thought, “Well we’ve collaborated with so many people, we should collaborate with a few more,” and that resulted in Urban Turban. And that’s why with this last album we collaborated with as few people as we could. We’re always trying to change it, which keeps it interesting for us.
Read Tjinder’s responses to the Five Questions here.