Interview with Alice Nutter of Chumbawumba

By Ronnie Dannelley
Article originally printed in Indie File -Nov 1997

It almost defies the unspoken law of punk-rock: a band that survives for 15 years with virtually the same lineup. And, still being creative and innovative with each release? Chumbawumba doesn't play by rock and roll's supposed rules, they make up their own. They walked the walk, putting out their music on their own indie label when the major labels showed no interest. With the recent success of their major label debut, "Tubthumping", Chumbawumba deserves all the radio airplay that has taken 15 years to achieve. All this despite the cries of "sell-out" for recently signing to a major label (EMI in England, Universal in the U.S.). But, the same people who cry "sell-out" are the same ones that dished out cash for a Sex Pistols reunion, enough said.

The eight-piece anarchist/rock band doesn't cram their political beliefs down your throat. As much as I disdain all anarchist rhetoric as bullshit, I still love Chumbawumba's music. They start with catchy melodies and dance beats, slowly weaving their political agenda in. All born-again Christian rockers should take note of their approach, if they ever want to sell their message to the masses.

Nothing is off limits in Chumbawumba's musical observatory. Alice Nutter explained the band's unique approach, what drives the band and how they place their beliefs in their songs. And what the success of Tubthumping can bring.

QUESTION: Each release finds the band experimenting in a new direction, with eight members in the band, who decides what direction the next album or single will take?

Alice: The best idea & what happens is, we never take the first idea that comes up. Somebody will say something and we'll start to argue around it, say "that's a good idea, but & " And ideas get modified, but our creed is, the best idea wins. But, not in a ruthless way, it has to be that we reach some sort of decision that we're all happy with. If there's a point where one person isn't happy, we rarely just go ahead with it.

QUESTION: Who writes the songs for the band?

Alice: It's not one person at all & before we do anything we all sit down together and we talk about what we want the songs to be about. Everybody gets a say in it. From that we split it up into categories. People check categories about what they want to write about. And from that point onward, they'll be fitted to drum loops. And someone else will start altering and changing things around. So, it's not a precious process at all, again it's the best idea wins. And everything is altered, you cannot be precious about the things that you've done in Chumbawumba. Because we realize that individually we probably do all that, but we sound much better if we work as a group.

QUESTION: The band has been together since the mid-eighties?

Alice: Eighty-two & we started doing things together, but didn't release music until '86, we did things before then. We were involved in the Miner Strike musically, we did a lot of benefits.

QUESTION: Each album seems to cover new territory, with the band covering new ideas and styles. But, essentially, you still remain Chumbawumba. Has the band's philosophy changed over the years?

Alice: The band's philosophies have changed in certain ways in that the times change. So, you have to react differently to situations, we're not stuck in a time warp. You can't do the same thing that you would have done in 1980, because we've had 15 years of Thatcherism. You know, the country's gone so much more right-wing. You can't use old left-wing rhetoric anymore, caus4e people don't respond to it. We've continued to be anarchists, that is the one thing that is constant about it. Our philosophy is, you must never be scared of change. Even if you change, and it's a mistake, it's better to be brave.

QUESTION: In hindsight, is there any recording that the band wishes it had never released? Or done differently?

Alice: No, because even the mistakes are their time, obviously. You have to see that each piece of music is of its time.

QUESTION: The Tubthumping single is so catchy that even my seven-year-old is singing it...

Alice: You see, that's great, the idea that catalysts like Chumbawumba & .and the idea that we're in people's houses and on karaoke machines. Popular culture is what shaped us. Punk rock led us towards politics, punk rock led us towards music. Then you want to be part of popular culture. The fact that little children are singing our songs, just makes us think, "great, this is how we've always wanted to be."

QUESTION: Is there ever a problem with the lingo of some of your songs translating to Americans? There are some English slang words, such as "pissed", which have different meaning over here.

Alice: (Laughs) America might have problems with translating all of this, but we never have problems. Because, we talk about what we know. In doing that, there is some sort of emotion that people relate to. You listen to the Beatles, it's not the understanding of every word, it's the overall feel. Soul music, most of the words are absolute rubbish.

QUESTION: It seems to me that Chumbawumba would be perfect for a box set, which overviews the band's work and includes some of the hard to find releases? I mean, you have several singles on different labels.

Alice: Yeah, but they're marketing ploys aren't they? That's what people do box sets for. The other thing is, people quite often do that when they're running out of creative juices. You know, when they can't move on and do something else.

QUESTION: But what about the hard to find Chumbawumba records?

Alice: We're struggling to get ahold of them. We do actually own the back catalogue, but at the moment, we're still working for it. I mean, I think those box sets are a good idea sometimes & but, if things have already been released, then I'm dubious to do it because I think its just a money-making exercise.

QUESTION: It was great to finally hear Chumbawumba on the radio. I've been a big fan since 1994...

Alice: I think people thought we'd split up years ago, but bands just don't last 15 years. The thing is we've had so many transformations, we're the same people. It's been more of less the same lineup & Jude joined us on trumpet last year and Paul joined a couple of years ago. Apart from that it's been the same six from '82 till now & which is quite unusual, I think, in a band. I think it is the idea that we welcome change, none of us are scared of it. You know, most bands find a formula that they think sells, and they won't leave that territory. We're scared of staying in that territory! We're not out to please other people.

QUESTION: Running your own record label, did you ultimately run into the same problem as say, the Beatles did with their Apple label? Its sounds like a great idea, utopian and all, but eventually reality sets in...

Alice: The difference between us and Apple is that Apple had a fortune to waste, and all we had were pennies. Well, we didn't waste them, we put them into other bands. We didn't want to tell the bands what to do. We didn't want to behave like a business. I think bands thought a label would be something that came along and changed their napper, or diaper, and wipe their asses. And we're not like that.

QUESTION: How long was your record company in existence?

Alice: '86 to '92. In fact, we never took any money out of it, we ran it as a labour of love. Anything that Chumbawumba made, we put into other bands.

QUESTION: What about the shouts of 'sell-out' with Chumbawumba's major record deal?

Alice: We've gone to a major label, and there is a likelihood that a certain amount of money will come in. But, were still not fond of capitalism. It's not a good system, it's ruthless.

QUESTION: Does the band have a new approach, now that it is on EMI?

Alice: No, we finished the album before we went to EMI (Universal in America). We went in with a finished album, said, "here it is, do you want it?"

QUESTION: Have you decided on a theme for the next album?

Alice: We were talking about using world music, not in the sense of African tribal, but like Eastern European folk type. I mean, we don't know, it will change. We start off with an idea and by the time we've argued it through, it comes up completely different.

QUESTION: What does the name Chumbawumba mean?

Alice: It means nothin', I'm afraid...