Philly Jays: ‘Britain’s Really Broken’
Ahead of their 26-date national tour, Philadelphia Grand Jury’s Berkfinger tells DARREN LEVIN how he’s lost that loving feeling for London.
The London experiment seems to be over for Sydney’s Philadelphia Grand Jury. An early morning phone call finds singer-guitarist Simon “Berkfinger” Berckelman surrounded by boxes in the East London house cum studio they’ve called home for the past six months.
“I’ve got a crazy fever,” he says “I’ve been up all night, but apart from that I’m OK. My body’s given up the ghost. It’s like, ‘Dude, you can’t party and play gigs all over the world without paying some kind of price.’”
The band shifted to the UK in May this year after inking a deal with Beggars Group label Too Pure. They were supposed to stay there for the “foreseeable future”, but have struggled to find artistic affinity in a scene dominated by hype, haircuts and the lure of non-existent record deals. With the departure of 55-year-old drummer Calvin Welch (replaced by fellow European transplant, I Heart Hiroshima’s Susie Patten) and a return home on the horizon (they’re three shows into a 26-date national tour), Berkinfger says the band’s days in London could well be numbered. New York, he offers, may be next.
So that’s it for London?
I’m not sure about London.
What are your doubts?
It’s got a lot of stuff going on – if you’re interested in African music, there’s a club open every night with African music on; if you’re interested in anything, there’s a crowd for it, because there’s so many people packed in here. But there’s certain things like weather and food and the vibe on the street that don’t feel that good to me. Being from Sydney, and even just touring Australia – everywhere’s pretty cool – it’s a shock to be somewhere where people on the street don’t seem happy.
Have you fit in to the live music scene there?
Well, we figured we’d meet heaps of bands and people doing stuff, and being a producer, I’d work with some bands, but we’ve searched high and low and haven’t found any acts that are cool. There’s a band called Dog Is Dead that’s pretty cool. But we really haven’t gotten involved in this music scene. Every night we go out and see bands, and all the cool bands are American bands, like Real Estate will be playing or something. It’ll be five pounds because it’s London, and it’ll be a Tuesday night around the corner.
In terms of a music scene I think Britain’s really broken at the moment. They’re all just coming out still with the record label thing and the haircuts thing, and I think they’re still all looking for the next Clash and the next movement. At the moment, every band we meet or play a gig with are all talking about record deals and management and haircuts … I think they’re really stuck in an old way of thinking. They haven’t really gotten honest about music and being independent the way lots of American and Australian acts have done … There are no record deals in Australia, so there’s no point living like that: trying to be a rockstar and hoping it all works out. You’ve got to make it happen.
Is it still very much about hype?
NME is like New Idea for music. It’s horrible and I couldn’t actually read it. For about three weeks, NME was totally devoted to The Libertines, because they were making a comeback at Reading, I think. There were four-page spreads with photos of them rehearsing … It’s like, “Dudes, that’s so long ago, you have to let go and you have to move on.” That’s something that’s made me not really that excited to stay in London, because I need to be around a scene of musicians making cool stuff.
It’s not really that easy to get excited about London when they keep producing bands like The Klaxons.
Yeah, or The Horrors.
“I’m probably just shopping for a city because I’m not happy with what I’m doing, but I need some energy from a new place. I need some inspiration.”
So you had a temporary studio in London?
Yeah, yeah. We set up a studio next door Milwall Football Club, which is notorious for being the roughest football club in the entire UK. The second roughest is Leeds, apparently, and when they play together there’s police everywhere and they [the fans] all go in separate areas. We set up a studio in a really African area right next to the stadium. We shipped all our stuff to ourselves, which of course got seized by customs, so we lost it for a couple of weeks. Then we had to pay crazy tax on importing our own things. We got it back, but we were out of pocket for about three months. Then shit blew up. I bought a brand new mixing desk, took it out of the box and it blew up. I was like, “How the hell can anything else happen to us now?” We’ve had lots of time so we’ve been able to record lots of things. We’ve got three albums recorded now.
Are you going to release them back-to-back?
It’s all really different, so we’re not sure. We’re going to decide on a direction, and then pick 20 songs that match what we want to do with the next album, and then mix those, and choose the best 15. We’ve got too many songs at the moment. I think some of them might form a solo album for me.
The last time I spoke to you, you said you wanted to make a more groove-based record. Is that still the case?
There’s definitely more groove to this one. It’s a little less punk in terms of the playing. It’s a little less trying-to-be Clash or Sonics. There’s a few more sounds and some more complex rhythms, but there’s still a punk attitude. It’s hard to know what it’ll end up like. We were playing with Calvin back then?
Yeah, you just started playing with him.
Some of his songs that we’ve kept are really funky because he comes from a punk background. The songs we’ve done now with our new drummer Susie [Patten] are a bit more punk, because she’s from I Heart Hiroshima. It’s a little bit more slack.
Having a rotational drummer must keep things fresh.
It keeps things fresh, but we didn’t plan for Calvin to be done. We wanted to do another two with him, but it just didn’t work out. It was very stressful thinking, “OK, we don’t have a drummer, and we have a gig next week where we need a drummer.” It just happened to be that Susie was in Berlin, and about to move to New York. She’s an old friend of ours, so we talked to her … We’re extremely lucky.
She’s a big hitter.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And she’s pretty minimal, which will suit some of the tracks … She leaves a lot of space.
Do you think you’ll work with Calvin again?
Maybe in the studio, more than touring. It got too difficult. Touring lends itself to being a road rat and being solo. You have to be ready just to leave your whole life behind. He’s older and more settled and he’s got family, so being on the road wasn’t perfect. That said, he always tried to do it for us. It’s not like he let us down and quit. We worked out that it wasn’t working, and maybe the best thing was for him to go home.
So he was in the UK with you from the outset?
He was here for four or five months. He was living here and gardening and playing all the gigs. It was probably never going to work, but he assured us he wanted to try it.
Did he shift his family?
No, they stayed home. It was cool for three months, until we came back to Australia for Splendour, saw his family and realised how much they missed each other. He tried to stay strong for us – because he said he was going to do something – but from that point he was missing them like crazy.
You guys do put yourself through a grueling schedule. I think you’re doing something like 30 dates in Australia after a US tour.
Yeah, and then there’s another tour that hasn’t been announced after that. To regional areas, so it’s more like 50 dates. And they’re trying to get us to go to India somewhere in there.
Is touring about maintaining your life as a working musician?
That’s the thing MC Bad Genius and I always talk about. We just have to stay alive … We just want to make sure that everyone’s happy and fed with a roof above them. That’s the big thing for us. If we were on a major label they’d offer us tour support, but we’d of course owe them at an extortion interest rate. They’d probably hook us up with a tour manager and we’d be cruising around being irresponsible and drunk.
So you take touring a lot more seriously when it’s self-funded?
Oh, totally. We’re like, “OK. We can take the fancy van, or we can save a hundred pounds if we take the less comfortable van.” We can use that 100 pounds to pay the rent for the week. Thinking like that does your head in. At the end of the day we’d rather spend the money on our studio, and put our records ourselves in the UK and America through record labels. We put the money up pretty much independently, but with their help. We need to raise a lot of money for that. It means we’re never going to get paid, at least not for the next few years, besides rent money and food money. I produce records, so I’m lucky I can do some work on the side.
Have you been producing any acts in London?
No, I thought I would. I’d be scouting. The way I work is I’ll see an act I like and ask them to do a song: “Don’t worry about money, let’s just do a song and have fun and see what happens.” I can’t find an act in the UK that I’m interested in. I’ve seen heaps of great American acts, but I can’t find a UK act that I want to record.
No luck with the Australian ex-pat community over there?
There’s always bands that are like, “Hey, we need this file mastered by a certain date, and you’re here.” But I’ve tried not to come to another country and just work with Aussie bands. We can have a beer and hang out, but I can do that in Sydney.
So New York might be a more suitable place?
Well, Susie is moving to New York, and I’ve got a couple buddies there. I can always just – after we tour – go there and hang out and see if I like it. Everyone has said to me that when you like where you live, it’s usually more about you than the place. At the moment, I’m probably just shopping for a city because I’m not happy with what I’m doing, but I need some energy from a new place. I need some inspiration.
You haven’t been back here since Splendour. How has the live show changed?
Well, we have a new drummer, so that’s changed the feel a lot. It’s taken it back to the place it was originally, which is a bit more slacker punk. For the first few years, we really just evolved the show. It didn’t change drastically at any point, we feel like we’ve made it better with incremental changes. [This time] we’ve decided to make drastic changes to the way we do it. It’ll be the first time we have a proper show with lights and a crew. That’ll help elevate it. I’ve come up with a lighting concept: we’re lighting the stage, but in purely black and white. There’s not going to be any spot colours, or anything. Just really intense white lights with really intense dark and everything in between. We’re going to be really playful within those conditions … If people are fans and they’ve seen the show, I think we’re going to surprise them and shock them in a good way.
Philadelphia Grand Jury’s “Save Our Town” tour continues on Thursday (November 11) at Hotel Gearin in Katoomba, NSW. More dates here.