Leeds based veterans of the indie scene I LIKE TRAINS return this month with their first album in eight years, so what took them so long?
“An I LIKE TRAINS record doesn’t really start to take shape until there’s a theme”, says vocalist and lyricist David Martin. “That point came following Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks in 2013.”
Titled KOMPROMAT, the Russian term for compromising political material, the album delves into the opaque world of modern politics – the rise of populism, of unelected political advisers pulling strings behind the scenes, of Trump, Brexit, Cambridge Analytica and covert Russian interference. That it’s packed to bursting with throbbing post-punk bangers helps too.
We asked David to talk us through some of the themes of the album and to share his playlist for Britain in 2020.
It’s hard to know where to begin with everything that’s going on in the world right now, so I suppose we’ll begin with COVID-19 and the national and global response to it. How has the pandemic affected you personally and what’s your take on the government’s handling of the virus in the UK?
Well, I’ve spent a lot of time with the family. I’m not sure I was cut out for home schooling the kids, but I’ve made my way through some particularly bleak periods of history with the eldest! Juggling that with work and the album release has been difficult. Not much in the way of free time for writing or self-reflection unfortunately, but we’re all more or less getting on, and we’re fit and healthy. So I can’t complain in that respect. Many people have had it much worse, and my heart goes out to those struggling with work and health.
The government’s shambolic response to the virus comes as no surprise. Boris Johnson is an opportunist with very little discernible skill as a leader. He said what he needed to say to get in through the front door of Number 10 and got into bed with the people who would put him there. We had the benefit of seeing how the virus spread in Italy and Spain, and we still managed to blow our response spectacularly. Decisions were made with only the economy and self-interest in mind and very little regard for human life and scientific expertise. The irony being that if we’d locked down earlier, and implemented a proper track and trace system, we would have been able to open up more quickly. You could argue that it’s short sighted, but when you factor in the massive contracts handed out to government cronies under emergency protocols it becomes something altogether more sinister. It’s disaster capitalism, and the public has every right to be furious about it. I hope that anger lasts until we get the chance to vote them out.
There’s been talk of a ‘reset’ of society as we return to a ‘new normal’. What are you hoping to see as we emerge from lockdown?
I don’t have a utopian vision for how this all plays out unfortunately. At the very least I think we’ll have an increased respect for healthcare workers and teachers too, and I hope that we’ll vote accordingly in the next election. I hope we’ll adopt and maintain healthier working practices. Get that work/life balance back.
It’s also been a baptism of fire for the new Labour leadership – what’s your opinion of their response so far, and of the state of left wing politics in the UK more generally following last year’s general election?
I do think Starmer is on the right path to forming an effective opposition. He’s clearly doing well at holding the government to account in debate, which is probably where the previous administration didn’t perform so strongly. God knows they need to be held to account! He has a huge task ahead in trying to unite his party, but a shift towards the centre is a pragmatic approach in my opinion.
The music industry, and live music in particular, has been hit hard by the lockdown. Have the Culture Secretary’s recent announcements gone far enough to support musicians, labels and venues and is there anything else that you’d like to see put in place?
Clearly so many industries are going through a massively difficult time right now, but naturally I’m more aware of the issues surrounding music in particular. I do worry for my friends and colleagues who work in live music more than anyone else. It’s difficult to see a route back to business as usual for live music until a vaccine is introduced. As for the Culture Secretary’s support, I think it was too slow, and whether it’s enough to support the grassroots industry remains to be seen. The huge sums required to keep flagship venues and events going through this seem to get the headlines and support. Recognition of how small venues and the community of people around them feed into the bigger cultural picture has been slow in coming. The concept of this ecosystem shouldn’t be too hard to comprehend, but unfortunately it’s more or less invisible to those at the top.
And while all of this has been going on, we’ve been quietly trundling towards Brexit at the end of the year. What are your expectations for what that might look like and the long-term effects for British society?
Oh shit! The rich will get richer, and crow about how great everything is, while the most vulnerable will pay a huge price. A disaster. It will take decades for us to recover from it.
One of the major themes of your new album is the role of special advisers in government – why turn your ire on them specifically?
The overarching theme is information, but these guys will use every trick in the book to manipulate data and subvert the narrative in their favour. They work above the law it seems. Get your man in power and they will excuse you for any wrongdoings you committed in the process. It’s corrupt to the core. They’re more untouchable than the people we voted in.
The album also looks at how information is collected, manipulated and disseminated by people and organisations in positions of power. How and to what extent do you think this has shifted the political landscape and society more broadly in the UK?
A definitive answer to this is almost impossible, because the Tory government refuse to investigate the influence of foreign powers, and Russia in particular, on the Brexit referendum. The story doesn’t start there, but it certainly opened a huge can of worms on a global scale. It was so finely balanced, that it doesn’t take a giant leap of imagination to see how disinformation spread via social media could swing it. The effect on society has been horrific, with xenophobic and racist sentiment bubbling to the surface. Clearly it was there before, but it has emboldened people to be vocal about it and spread their hatred. The knock-on effect with the US elections that followed was pronounced. Many of the same people involved in Brexit popped up over there. Again, it’s difficult to get a definitive picture, because those in charge like to muddy the water. Let’s just say it’s interesting to see all the various Russian links these mediocre politicians have while miraculously rising to the top.
Is there anything that can be done about it?
Tricky! Information is power. We need to look after investigative journalism. Pay your newspaper subscriptions. They’re the ones who can draw a meaningful narrative through this information onslaught and will hold politicians and tech companies to account. Electoral law needs to catch up with the technology. It’s too easy to subvert democracy at this point, and the penalties need to fit the crime.
Was there a particular moment or issue that led you to become politically engaged, either as a musician or more generally?
I don’t think so. It was always part of the discourse with my parents growing up. I guess it naturally becomes more central to life as you get older and have more responsibilities. We didn’t intend to write such a politically heavy album. That happened by accident!
Do you think that there are enough bands and artists speaking out about the current state of society and our politics? Can music really make a difference?
I seem to be getting asked this question a great deal, and I don’t really know how to answer it. I don’t think artists should feel obliged to discuss their politics. It feels like we’re moving in a direction where it’s acceptable to talk and make music with a political leaning. For a while I think it was considered a pretty uncool thing to do. I guess you only really see the influence of politics on art and music, when the politics become more extreme. I look back to the post-punk bands of the late 70s and early 80s under Thatcher. Can it make a difference? I don’t make music with that in mind. It’s a reflection of how we’re feeling about the world, rather than a roadmap out of this.
Ok, we’re going to wave our magic wand now – you’ve been installed as Prime Minister for the day with a thumping majority. You can introduce one new proposal on any topic and it will be guaranteed Royal Assent – what’s it going to be?
Easy. I would introduce proportional representation. People need to feel empowered by their vote. Electoral reform would introduce a more nimble, representative type of politics to the UK.
Finally, which bands and tracks sum up the current state of the UK, or indeed the world right now for you?
Yard Act – Fixer Upper
Yard Act’s second single although the guys have been in various bands before. We’ve known James for a long time, and he’s a superb frontman and lyricist. This is an incredible acerbic takedown of privilege and entitlement.
Run The Jewels – the ground below
The RT4 album captures this moment perfectly. Articulate and angry. An instant classic. The Gang of Four sample on this track is a brilliant nod to a previous generation of angry and articulate musicians.
Clipping – Chapter 319
I love Clipping. Their production and delivery is on another level. This track was written in direct response to the killing of George Floyd. I think it speaks for itself. Anything I say wouldn’t do it justice.
Interview by Paul Maps
Photography by Ben Bentley