One of the best new releases to come out this year has been the wonderful surf-rock-with-a-twist album ‘The Long Slow Death Of The Cigarette’ by original Damned drummer and co-founder Rat Scabies and Flipron/Neville Staples Band guitarist Billy Shinbone’s new two piece band The Sinclairs. Their debut (and possibly only) gig is coming up fast on August 10th at the album launch party in The Brewery Tap pub venue in Brentford West London. Outsideleft caught up with the pair of them ahead of that over Zoom to find out what makes The Sinclairs tick.
Outsideleft: Let's start off with the name, shall we? I know, Rat, that you're big on Grail hunting and you've got a family connection with that going back to the Saunier Society, so was the band name taken from the St Clairs, the aristocratic Scottish family with a connection to Rosslyn Chapel, The Templars, and the Grail?
Rat: No, not really. First of all, the first album Sparkle was an instrumental and the thinking was that we would get lots of what they call 'sinks', where a track gets used in TV adverts and films and the like. Then there is also Sir Clive Sinclair, the great British innovator with his white elephant, the C5, but also the ZX81 computer from what I think was probably the best age of computing which was right at the very beginning - I quite like that low tech thing we also have on so many of our songs. And then the final two things were really that there were no other bands called the Sinclair's out there that we could find.
OL: There is one actually.
Rat: Thanks for that! And then finally, of course, there is the thing of Rosslyn and the Grail and everything else, which is a little bit spooky. So it sort of seemed to cover a lot of ground really in that name.
OL: That's quite a different (and longer!) answer to what I was expecting. I thought you might just say "yes, that’s it!" and I’d feel all smug that I’d guessed that right. So how did you both meet up originally and decide to form The Sinclairs?
Billy: I first met Rat in '95, when he had a studio in West London, and I walked in saying "how much does it cost to record here? I've got I've got 150 quid. How much can I record for that?", and Rat let us in and we just became mates really. We have a lot of music that we both like and he recorded my band Flipron and produced two records for that later on as well.
Rat: Billy and I were both at a loose end, and neither of us were doing a lot musically and Billy just said, "I've got this idea for doing a surfy kind of punk record, would you be up for doing it?" So we got together and recorded, and it was okay, but it just kind of sounded like two blokes in the studio who could play a bit. So Billy came up with a set of old organ bass pedals, and a 30 quid synthesiser, which I have here as Exhibit A [holds up a Korg Monotron] because what I realised was that we had to move out of the box to make it sound more interesting. And suddenly, you know, I was in my element. There's nothing better than experimentation with sounds, making things fit in and making stuff work and playing with all the plugins and the toys on the computer. So that was how the first album evolved.
I was very worried because Billy is a songwriter and suddenly I’ve put in all these dreadful tweaky synth noises and stuff but you know, it kind of works. For the new album, The Long Slow Death Of A Cigarette, we'd kind of made a template of great guitar lead tunes, and as many interesting sounds going on for the listener as I could find really.
Billy: The enjoyment of the process for me is writing a little guitar melody, then handing it over to Rat, and I've literally no idea what he's going to do with it, or how it's going to sound and it might be completely deconstructed and put back together a different way. That's part of the fun, to let go of something that you have imagined, and to let someone else reimagine it, and then it gets thrown back to me, and then I'll reimagine it in a different way. It just grows very naturally that way, and it's a really fun thing to do. A lot of it was recorded during the second lockdown in November, so we're doing stuff at home and just sending files back and forth, and it was so much fun. And it kind of kept us sane. I think like a lot of musicians, we had to do something. That is the pleasure of letting go of your own precious little thing, and handing it to the other one, and letting them do something to it. It’s been good.
OL: You've both been in bands with a lot of people in them, but this is just a two piece band. How does that feel in comparison?
Rat: It’s much easier!
Billy: Definitely. It's nice actually, because if there's more people than that you need someone in charge, but when there's just two of you, we are both in charge and both not in charge at the same time. It's very, very easy to just get on with it. You just have fun, you know.
Rat: You can't have a dictatorship when there's only two of you. I think in all the years I've worked with Billy I don't think we've ever really seriously disagreed about things, and nobody's ever raised their voice. He is probably one of the only people I've ever worked with where that hasn't happened at some time. I think it's also about the respect that I have for what Billy does and the way he writes the songs and the last thing I want to do is fuck that up. It’s quite important to me that I improve what's already there, maybe chop out a bit out, reverse stuff, or add some dolphins or, you know, just move it around a bit and make it so it's more the kind of record I want to listen to. If he doesn't like what I do, it's very easily rectified. I think we have an unspoken agreement that if one of us doesn't like it, then we drop it.
OL: I do think it sounds a bit different as well. Surf/Psyche seems quite popular at the moment, so you need to stand out from the crowd and the new album definitely does that and is a progression from the first record. It seems like you've found your groove now and are on a roll, so you can expand on that.
Rat: We were in a very strange place, because we'd made Sparkle and literally the day it was released, the whole world went into lockdown. None of the shops were open, everything stopped. We were hoping that we were going to finally make it in showbusiness and it was suddenly snatched away. I know that happened to everybody, but to us, it was kinda like, oh fuck, what shall we do? And Billy just turned around and said "well, we just better get on with the next one then". That was really such a common sense thing to do, because it was either that or just do nothing at all, and as we both enjoyed doing Sparkle so much, it was quite easy to be brutal with this and to take our time with it. I mean, it's taken us three years.
Billy: I think partly that was because we've involved guest singers. We spent a long time having phone calls about who we think should sing certain songs. We had loads of different ideas, but then eventually settle on someone, and unless it's someone we know personally we’d have to find out how to get in touch with them, and so forth. It all went pretty smoothly from that point of view, but it did add a lot of time. If it was just an instrumental record it would have been out for a year by now. They're all kind of misfits, and I mean that in the best possible sense, who bring something unique to the record. They all have so much character in what they do, and that's what we really wanted. So I think it was worth it, spending a bit of time trying to find and come up with singers that we both agreed on that had that kind of character and that had that unique, special vibe that could turn a song from just being a well sung song into something that was different.
OL: You had the actor Kevin Eldon [Game of Thrones, Hot Fuzz] in as a guest, who was a bit of a surprise. How did you hook up with him?
Rat: I'd been working with him in a project called The Spammed which is a charity Supergroup. Initially that was Neil Innes, Kevin, me, Horace Panter, and we never really had a stable guitar player but people would come in and guest, so that's how I knew Kevin and we always got on. We always had a laugh about the colour of his boots or whatever, so I'm doing the videos and said, well, he knows what we look like posturing with guitars so why don't we get Kevin in to act his way through the video as he is somebody who knows what to do in front of a camera. That will be a lot more entertaining than me pretending to play the drums, or Billy pretending to play the guitar, you know.
Billy: His contribution to the song ‘Monkey's Tails’ is another thing. I remember you saying that track needed something else. It was an instrumental originally and it needed an injection of something else, you know, a human voice. You had been talking to Kevin about stuff, played him a couple of tracks, and said why don't we get Kevin to do some stuff. He recorded this whole array of extraordinary noises. In itself, it's a work of genius. There's about four minutes of grunts, chants, screams and shouts and we just chose what worked in the track.
Rat: We have to be very careful not to let it turn into the Kevin Eldon show, because he's so good at what he does, and the point is, with ego intact, it's still about us and what we do, and the ideas we have, and the people we bring in to do it. We want them to add a gloss and a sheen to it, and, if you like, cover our weaknesses, and add to our strengths. It's great having Kevin on there, but you can't actually end up using everything he does, just because everything he does is great. You have to choose what contributes to the song and what's going on around it. Working with Zumi [Roscow from Black Lips] was very cool. She didn't want to use the vocal take she'd done in her bathroom as a guide, but actually, we preferred it to the polished version because it was rougher, so we used that. Everybody was really good about what we chose and how we made them sound on the record. They're a good bunch really.
OL: Has it been hard to get people to accept you as The Sinclairs, rather than Rat from The Damned and Billy from Flipron, You're never going to get rid of that history, you're always going to have that, but it can perhaps overshadow things. It might be might be more annoying for you, Billy, because people are always going on about Rat.
Billy: It doesn't worry me.
Rat: At this point in our career I'd have anybody that will give us a listen! You know Damned fans are pretty discerning music lovers, so I don't see any reason why some of them won't like what we what we're doing. But, yeah, we are kind of stuck with me being there and who I am and you just have to hope that we carry on making records. Don't forget, we haven't had a chance yet to do anything. We still haven't even played a gig.
OL: How would that work with all your guest singers? Taking all those different people around with you would be quite an entourage.
Rat: It would. Something like 'How Much Is The Dust', I don't know how we did it really. Sometimes you do something you didn't realise you were capable of doing. Roger Chapman is such an amazing vocalist and his voice is so incredible and unique in every sense of the word, the thought of trying to get somebody to duplicate that live is a non runner really.
Billy: I think if, if we were to do that song live, because there isn't anyone that sounds anything like him, we'd have to start looking for someone who could do something completely different with it. So from that point of view, I think it's quite impractical to start to reinterpret a song like that from scratch, which is what we'd have to do, but you never know, we might at some point do a gig and Roger will come up for that song. That will be fun.
Rat: Let's just say right now, it doesn't seem like gigs are the right thing to do. It's our second album, but it's still a new band, so nobody really knows who we are yet. At the moment, we're just pleased that the record is out at last, it's taken so long. We're really pleased with it and we'll take it one step at a time, you know, because neither of us really want to go out on the road. We've done that for years and nobody really wants to go and play in a pub to 50 people with a three hour drive there, and then a three hour drive back.
OL: This is a bit of an aside, but punk nostalgia seems to be getting quite a big thing at the moment. Do you have any feelings about that? I know you did The Damned original line up shows recently, but do you think it's a good or bad thing to have people continually wanting to see reformed versions of old bands?
Rat: Thats a loaded question! On the one hand, I was very, very pleased to do the reunion shows on every level. Artistically financially, and personally, you know, everything was great about it, and I wouldn't knock that at all. Just as long as it remains as a special event rather than a daily on-the-road thing, because people would lose interest if it was there all the time. I'm okay with doing stuff with The Damned and all of that, but with the Sinclairs, we don't really know which direction we're going to go in yet, or what else is going to be going on and what might get in the way or might not get in the way. Nobody's got a crystal ball, so we're just really playing it by ear for as long as we can. You have to do what you enjoy doing, that's the key to it. It's different when you're 18 and you haven't really been anywhere and all you want to do is tear up and down motorways and play gigs and drink beer, but we've done all that, so it has to be an enjoyable experience, has to be a fun thing to do.
OL: We talked about film soundtracks and 'sinks' at the start. A lot of tracks on the album sound very suitable for use in a soundtrack, I'm thinking of Tarantino films, but there's lots of other films as well.
Rat: That is easier said than done. The thing is, we, we don't really have the machinery, the management or any of that kind of thing. We've got a publisher, we've got a record company, so we are doing okay, but apart from that, that's it. Really, you need a bloke in a suit to go and talk to people and figure that kind of stuff out.
OL: You've got people you know that are involved in TV, like Jane Horrocks who might know somebody who knows somebody?
Rat: Mostly, that world is full of music professionals who do it for a living and do it every day and have relationships with the production companies. We have actually been used in one movie so far, which is an Australian gore film called 'Rib Spreader'
OL: Sounds pretty gruesome. Talking of visuals, you obviously have a lot of fun making the videos, which have some great comedy elements in them. You have this dummy with a papier mache head that appears in many of them, who is she?
Billy: Mavis! She's the assistant. She's always there. She lives in my basement with the recording stuff, but every now and then we allow her out to do some bits and pieces and she's always very willing and always has something to contribute.
OL: Is she your version of Iron Maiden's Eddie puppet?
Rat: I hope not! I cannot believe you asked about her. Now we're always going to have Mavis somewhere in our videos. We should make up some bullshit story about how she was a real person, a fan who got killed in a car crash and was mummified and we carry her around with us.
Billy: You know I live in Glastonbury and they are probably mummifying themselves on a daily basis out there. There's all kinds of people out on the streets in Glastonbury with the overwhelming smell of patchouli oil wafting down the street. I think she'd fit in very well there.
OL: You and her do make a lovely couple. I think we will leave it there so you and her can go and spend some quality time together, but thanks to both of you for talking to Outsideleft and congratulations on making a great album that I really hope will do well if there is any justice in the world.
Main image by Jason Bridges
The Long Slow Death Of The Cigarette is out now on Cleopatra Records.