Do You Like Pop Music?
Art Brut’s Eddie Argos on Frank Black, Alcoholism, DC Comics, Summer Jobs, Public Transportation, and Satan
In the weeks since its release, Art Brut's third and latest album, Art Brut vs. Satan, has steadily insinuated itself into my heavy rotation, proving itself a fine addition to the band's highly endearing catalog. As usual, frontman Eddie Argos rants and raves in his distinctive singing voice about such concerns as being broke, working shit jobs, listening to music, and trying to talk to girls. There are also a couple of songs about drinking too much and one about the joys of riding public transportation. All of which is, as always, anchored by his band's professionally tight but never overpolished rock 'n' roll, with production on this album courtesy of Frank Black of the Pixies. Argos spoke to The Stranger by phone during a recent five-night stand in New York City.
How are the New York City shows going?
Good... I thought we'd run out of songs to play or jokes, but it's going all right. I thought it'd be the same people every night, too, but it's not, it's different people, which is kind of cool.
Tomorrow you play with Jeffrey Lewis, and you'll be playing bass with an act called Keith Top of the Pops, right?
Yeah. I can't really play the bass guitar. Keith just taught me his songs. We've got a special method where he tells me numbers and I play them by the numbers, like, "1-3-4-1." I'm not a musician at all. Keith just asked me to play with him 'cause he's my best friend. I can only play his songs. It's fun; I like playing the bass.
Well, it's two strings less complicated than the guitar.
Well, I pretty much only play the top two strings.
You recorded Art Brut vs. Satan with Frank Black in Salem, Oregon. How did that come about, and what was the recording process like?
Well, we'd played with him in the past, and we got along. So for this album we decided we wanted all the songs to be recorded in one take, or two takes at most, for sincerity. We were thinking, well, who does that best? And it's Frank Black, with his Catholics—that's how he records their albums. That first Catholics album, he did that in one take, which is pretty amazing. So we thought, well, he's the expert, let's get him. And we phoned him up, and he said yes. It was that easy. It was pretty cool.
And you recorded the album in 10 days?
It was two weeks. And I thought we had two weeks to record, and then Frank Black told us that the last four days were for mixing. So, yeah, we had 10 days to record. We were doing like two songs a day. Actually, we recorded a couple songs and we didn't know we'd done it. We thought we were sort of setting up or testing guitars out, and he was like, "Oh, no. We recorded those. They're on the album now." Heh.
That's funny; you'd expect such an album to sound a bit rougher than your previous one, but it doesn't really.
Well, you know, we're professionals. We play very well. There's the song on the album, "Am I Normal?"—at the end of that, I say, "I've lost the ability to speak," and though I had loads more lyrics, when I sang it, I genuinely did lose the ability to speak, and so [imitates stammering]. And that was it. Frank Black was like, "That was it, that's the take we're keeping." And I said, "But, look, Charles [Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, aka Frank Black], I've got loads of lyrics." "Nope, nope. This take." So, it's strange it sounds polished, 'cause his favorite takes, he was intentionally choosing mistakes.
Did you have all the songs worked out ahead of time to allow you to record like that?
A little bit. I mean, [Black] kind of changed it up a little bit, 'cause he was sort of conducting us. He's quite a creative man to be around, so we ended up writing three or four more songs when we were there. "DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshake" changed quite a bit, and "Mysterious Bruises," "The Replacements," and "Twist and Shout" were written almost entirely in the studio.
The album is bookended with these two somewhat worrisome drinking songs, "Alcoholics Unanimous" and "Mysterious Bruises"—are these cries for help?
It's just good fun. I don't think I have a drinking problem. I do often wake up covered in bruises, but I'm just a clumsy drunk. It's no problem. I've always said about the lyrics, I try to make them like a conversation, like if we were in a pub we'd be talking like this. I thought it was about time I actually write about booze, as well, if I'm going to make songs like we're in a pub.
The album has a lot of songs about being broke, but it also has songs about buying records or, in the case of "DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshake," comic books and desserts. I take it you think it's worth spending recklessly on such indulgences even if you can't really afford them?
Yeah. I've always been poor, really. I've always kind of been in trouble. But whenever I'm upset or heartbroken—DC comics are cheap, aren't they? I can get a DC comic and a chocolate milkshake for about three pounds fifty. I can find that under my sofa or someone else's sofa. So I can always afford that luxury. I could go without food for that. All the times I've been upset, that's what's cheered me up.
We actually visited DC Comics a couple days ago. They gave me loads of comics—Neil Gaiman's Batman story. We got a proper tour; it was amazing. Might be the best day of my life. We got signed copies of Watchmen—it was amazing. They're coming down tonight to watch us [presumably the DC Comics folks, not the Watchmen —ed.]. I mention it every 10 minutes; I just keep telling people, like strangers in the street, "I went to DC Comics yesterday!"
When was the last time you had to work a "Summer Job"?
I've not needed one for a while. I've been with the band for like the last three years? Four years now? But when I was younger—I'm from the seaside, you know—I would always get shit summer jobs. I had a job working a chip shop, and I spent like three days just making bread-and-butter pudding in a hot kitchen. And one day I just decided—I don't want to sound like a hippie here—but I just decided I'd rather have no money and some fun than be working all the time. I thought, fuck that. I'd rather be outside on the beach, so I just left. The song's kind of about how much more fun fun is than money. And when you're a kid, you only need the money for booze and bus fare, and I'd rather just walk everywhere and not work.
You live in L.A. now, right? And you have the song "The Passenger," praising public transportation, but isn't the public transit in L.A. supposed to be terrible?
Well, I don't live there. I almost live there, most of the time. Legally, I don't live there. But I wrote that song when I was there. It's about riding the [bus] down Sunset. I find [riding public transportation] kind of easy in L.A. I think people just really like their cars.
"Demons Out," with its lines that "the record-buying public shouldn't be voting," seems like kind of a sad postscript to all your old Top of the Pops talk. Have you given up on meritoriously scaling the charts?
Yeah, maybe a bit. That song's about [British TV show] X Factor. But I don't mean that; I mean they shouldn't be allowed to vote in elections at all. I don't care about Pop Idol. Even on the first one, though, we had "Bad Weekend," "popular culture no longer applies to me." I've always kind of been grumpy. I just forgot for an album, and I remembered again for the third one.
What does Art Brut have against Satan?
Well, people would always say, "Art Brut, you either love them or you hate them," and it's such a cliché. So we just embrace it: If you hate Art Brut, we hate you, and we think you're Satan, and we're going to get you. Anyone who doesn't like Art Brut, I've decided, is Satan. But to be perfectly honest, I had the idea for the title first and worked backward to find an idea to call it that. I just thought it was a cool name.