Interviewed by Kai Slater
Alan Jenkins is an infinitely important name in the world of UK do-it-yourself weirdo music. From his storytelling and guitar work in the Deep Freeze Mice (1979-1989) and his ongoing solo work, to his own Cordelia Records, where he has worked frequently with DIY legends like R. Stevie Moore and Dolly Mixture and upon which he started the legendary “Obscure Independent Classics” compilations which have changed many lives and won many Granny’s.
1. You’ve been DIY your whole career it seems. Tell me about how making independent music has changed over time for you personally, from the early days to the internet and beyond. There was a time when a lot of our work came out on labels other than our own – that would be back in the early '90s – Madagascar, Raffmond, Jar Music etc and sometimes this would work out nicely – eg: if somebody wanted to organize a tour for you - but I eventually realized that it was mostly more fun if you did it all yourself. So unless something very unusual comes along I would rather release things on Cordelia. In the past I have occasionally told very big record companies to get lost.
The main difference with making independent music back in the early days was that people were more likely to notice you were there – the mainstream music press would occasionally write reviews and national radio would occasionally play you. I don't know what you have to do to get a review in the music press these days – presumably they only take notice of things that arrive via big distributors, which is a shame because this means that the best music being made will be invisible to them. Also, back in the '80s releasing a record would involve folding cardboard with things printed on it with ink and then posting it. We've lost something haven't we? I expect this explains the success of your fanzine – people are starting to notice. Let's hope that they are starting to notice in droves.
2. How did Cordelia Records start? And what has been the most fulfilling part of it? There was a thing called the “enterprise allowance scheme”. Margaret Thatcher wanted to encourage people to start their own businesses so she let you claim a small amount of free money every week for a year even if your idea for a business was preposterous. This was popular with struggling musicians at the time. But Margaret Thatcher was a hugely destructive force on British society - she destroyed our manufacturing industry purely for ideological financial reasons which resulted in mass unemployment - by selling off council houses she caused a housing crisis that we haven't recovered from yet. And she waged this war on the working class in a pompous, arrogant way that got up most of the noses in the country. The enterprise allowance scheme was a sticking plaster to try and address the fact that it was very hard to get a job in the Thatcher years. The only musicians likely to have a good word to say about her would be rich tax exiles - I remember The Bee Gees advising us to vote Tory back them.
The bit I like best is hearing a song recorded for the first time.
3. Specifically I want to take about the “Obscure Independent Classics” compilations. How was all this music found and how did you end up distributing it? There is a little essay about this in the form of sleeve notes for the recent OIC best of CD. Briefly, it was partly inspired by a cassette compilation from California called “The Other” of which there were two editions compiled by George Parsons and Mikhail Graham. This introduced me to John Trubee and Zoogz Rift, amongst others, and I also contacted many bands who I either new personally or had heard on the radio or whatever. John Peel played several tracks from the series on his show on the BBC. All the records we made in those days were distributed by The Cartel (a co-operative record distribution organization in the United Kingdom, set up by a number of small independent record labels to handle their distribution to record shops), so in theory they could have been easy to find in the shops.
4. More on that, you’ve done a lot of R Stevie Moore releases, while being across an ocean, how did you two start working together and how has that been? I first heard of R Stevie Moore because he had a track on the Recommended Records sampler L.P. that came out in 1982. When Terry Burrows [Yukio Yung] and I formed a band called The Chrysanthemums in 1986 we asked Stevie if he would record a vocal for our cover version of his song “Holocaust Parade”. We had a bit of a golden age of creativity much later in the 2010's when Cordelia released several CD editions of his classic works from the past. “Glad Music” was a particular highlight – I made a new improved audio master for it. The album we did together was also a lot of fun - The Embodiment of Progressive Ideals.
5. How was being in the Deep Freeze Mice? How did you operate and was it a common way for a band to, in the 80s? I think we operated in a pretty standard way in The Deep Freeze Mice. At one point we all lived in the same house and rehearsed all the time and we were mostly unemployed. You could say that we were unusually well documented for such an obscure band – the fact that we released ten albums would set us apart from most of our contemporaries. Plus there are quality new versions with interesting sleeve notes that are available right now.
6. I definitely see a lot of your work, at the very least in how it was distributed, very influential on the 90s indie scene and beyond; most notably MGMT said the Deep Freeze Mice were a big influence on their album Congratulations. Do you feel like others are giving your music recognition more nowadays? I can't say I have seen a huge amount of evidence for this. Maybe a bit. It was nice when MGMT name-checked us a couple of times – I don't know if you ever saw it but there is a very funny interview with them on youtube - where Nardwuar reads out parts of an interview that I gave to the Leicester Mercury (our local newspaper) where I offer to produce their next album. I don't think they were particularly into that idea though, which was obviously a terrible tactical mistake on their part.
7. Tell me about your new recordings with both ‘Alan Jenkins and The Kettering Vampires’ and ‘The Melamine Division Plates’! It’s all very good stuff, tell more about how it was made and the themes! In recent years I have been dividing my time between the kind of indie songs that we used to play in The Deep Freeze Mice – usually under the name of Alan Jenkins and The Kettering Vampires – and the world of “Experimental Surf Music” which has included a few compilations and also albums by The Melamine Division Plates, Culpho Dog Gymkhana and Aaaaaaaaxb. There is also a boxed set of eight ESM CDs released by the ReR Megacorp – Chris Cutler has been very supportive of the whole ESM scene.
8. ‘The Melamine Division Plates’ specifically released an album called ‘Novosibirsk’, which is, from what I can tell, a soundtrack to Jane Ek’s play of the same name, where, and I quote: “Joseph Stalin himself comes to spearhead an investigation into missing penguins at Novosibirsk city zoo. These penguins were removed for their own safety by zoo keeper Anton, who after the threat recedes is unsure what to do next. Anton’s increasingly desperate bid to keep a lid on the penguin situation seems to be the focus for the fun.” What have you been listening to/reading/watching and what has been inspiring your music the most besides Stalin and penguins? I listen to new things all the time but, I don't know about you, I think one is stuck with the formative influences that you acquire in your early years – so the new things that I listen to are either old things that are new to me, or things that sound like them. My favourite album this week, for instance is the McDonald and Giles album – this came out on 1970 but I hadn't heard it before. I only just discovered the Pleasures of the Harbour album by Phil Ochs, there's another one. Then again, at this precise moment I am listening to Grand Dentelé by Véhicule because I got an email that someone I am following on Bandcamp has just bought it.
10. Finally, who is the cat of Cordelia Records? The cat is my cat Cordelia [1982 – 2001]. The members of The Thurston Lava Tube commissioned an oil painting of her as a present for my 50th birthday and I have it hanging on the wall here.