Ah, The Windmill; scene of many an unforgettable night of live music and home to most of the gigs that we’ve ever hosted ourselves. Some strange form of alchemy has taken place over the past couple of decades in this flat-roofed council estate pub, under the watchful eye of its succession of roof dogs, that has kept it at the centre of South London’s music scene whilst many more salubrious establishments have come and gone. Quite what that special something is though is quite the puzzle, so thankfully author and Times rock & pop critic Will Hodgkinson has done the legwork and penned Roof Dog: A Short History of The Windmill in attempt to find the answers for us.
Featuring interviews with landlord Seamus McCausland, booker Tim Perry and some of the artists for whom the Brixton institution has become a second home, including Black Midi and Black Country, New Road alongside impressionistic artwork from the author’s son Otto, it’s a fascinating look at a vital part of the UK’s grass roots music scene from both behind and in front of the scenes.
We caught up with author Will Hodgkinson to ask him about the book and his own Windmill experiences:
Venue closures have been one of the ongoing stories of the past several years – why do you think The Windmill has survived when so many others have gone to the wall?
For one thing the Windmill itself has become an attraction in itself in the way that CBGB’s once was, so a lot of people will take a punt on paying a few quid (and the door entry is always kept low) for some bands they have never heard of in order to experience an evening at the place. Secondly, they keep their overheads low. Rather than getting in a team of designers as some ambitious new venue might, the Windmill’s landlord Seamus got a Camberwell art school student called Kimia Amini to paint jungle scenes and phantasmagorical creatures on the interior walls. Thirdly, the Windmill’s booker Tim Perry has some kind of genius for spotting talent early. He’ll be happy to let a new band play in front of 10 people if they have something to them. As a result, when they do get a following, they will repay the favour by doing sell out gigs at the Windmill.
There have been a number of bands and artists that have become synonymous with the venue over the years – what do you think makes a ‘Windmill band’?
A Windmill band certainly isn’t defined by one style or genre. Recently the place has become associated with post-punk, but that wasn’t the case 20 years ago when Tim was putting on alternative country and hip-hop, fifteen years ago with the brief indie dance boom, or nine years ago with the rockabilly sleaze of the Fat White Family and their ilk. I would say a sense of anarchy and humour is more important than ability, but Tim certainly has his own tastes. Tribute bands are a no no and so, for some reason, is reggae.
Much of the book is based on interviews with Windmill owner Seamus and booker Tim – I can’t imagine you were short on material after speaking to them.
Well, yes and no. Tim can be temperamental — I have to catch him at the right moment — but he’s a fascinating character who lives almost entirely in the Windmill’s world and because he was once a music journalist we do have an understanding of one another. For years I thought he didn’t have a home and that he just collapsed in a corner of The Windmill each night before starting over again. Turns out he does have a flat in Crystal Palace, although I’ve never seen it. And then there’s Seamus… the first couple of times I tried to to talk to Seamus, Tim warned me off it. He was cross with Tim about something or other, and he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to write a book on The Windmill. Once he got going he was fascinating, particularly on the way the Irish community leaving London was the impetus for the Windmill becoming what it is. Even after doing the book, though, they are still mysterious figures to me. I’m not sure I’ll ever really know what’s going on with either of them. Maybe it’s better that way.
Everyone who’s been to The Windmill has their own experiences of the place and there must be hundreds of stories you could have told – how did you decide what to include and were there any that didn’t make it into the final edit that you wish you could have fitted in?
This is only a small book, but I’ve published four previously and every time it has felt like going on a journey where I have only a vague idea of the destination and no idea of how to get there. So it was with The Windmill. Any venue that has been around for almost 50 years will mean a lot of different things to different people, so I kept my history of it relatively personal, from Josh T Pearson threatening to kill me in the garden to being confronted with the dilemma of needing to help a young Downs Syndrome man who had drunk too much and was stuck in the toilet. Beyond that I did want to look at its place in the culture, and at the role of flat roofed pubs in Britain. They’re much demonised, but The Windmill is one of the safest and most inclusive places you could ever hope to find. All are welcome.
The other stars of the book are of course the roof dogs that give the book it’s title – how did you get on with the current encumbent, Lucky?
I can’t say I got on massively well with Lucky. She growled at me when I sat down to talk with Seamus. Perhaps she sensed my fear of dogs, which has been there ever since I was four years old and got chased up the stairs by a rabid poodle. I think the roof is the best place for all of the Windmill’s Roof Dogs, in fact. Ben the Rottweiler is the one most people remember and by all accounts he was a bit of a ladies’ dog — he was famous for charming the prettiest girls in the place — but also somewhat prejudiced. On one infamous incident he took exception to a bunch of French goths who were sitting out the front one day. He let his displeasure be known the best way a dog on a roof can: by pissing all over them.
What is your personal favourite Windmill moment?
It was late last year. Ben Wallers is the former leader of the Country Teasers, the sleazy rockabilly/punk/whatever band that inspired the Fat White Family, Goat Girl and so many other Windmill mainstays. Ben now performs solo as the Rebel, and for his set he played a keyboard and guitar while shouting out various country punk rants that made him seem like an extremely disturbed and possibly dangerous individual. Then afterward he sat in a corner and sold his self-made CDs for a fiver and was really pleasant to everyone that came up to him. That is why Ben is to me the ultimate Windmill artist. So many rock and pop stars do their best to come across as wonderful people with all the right opinions while being utterly ruthless. Ben does the exact opposite. He’s playing at our launch for the book, which I’m very pleased about.
The book was created with your son Otto, who created the artwork as well as providing some perspective from the new generation of music fans making The Windmill their own. How did the idea for that come about and what was it like working with him?
Otto is the real Windmill regular, not me. He’s a teenager from South London who loves the scene and so many of the bands who pass through it, while I’m a music journalist who wouldn’t be going out to as many gigs as I do at my ripe old age were it not for my job. I was also interested in the phenomenon of going to gigs with my son, something I could never do with my dad, although if I do go to the Windmill with Otto he generally tells me to hide away in a corner where I can’t embarrass him too much. So when the possibility of the book came about I really wanted Otto to utilise his drawing skills — he’s about to start a degree at Camberwell Art School — and capture the Windmill as he saw it. I left it up to him to draw what he wanted, and I’ll be interested to know who you think the various bands and solo artists he has depicted are. I did give him one brief: to draw Ben the Roof Dog. Funnily enough, he came out looking quite a lot like Seamus.
Roof Dog: A Short History of The Windmill is released through Rough Trade Books on 19th March. Pre-order your copy here.
A launch party will be held at The Windmill on Wednesday 8th April, featuring a reading + q&a with author Will Hodgkinson, live performances by Great Dad and The Rebel and Goat Girl DJs. More details and tickets, priced £5, here.
Listen to Will’s Windmill Playlist below:
Interview by Paul Maps