State of the Nation Playlist: Joel Phillips of The Kecks picks the tunes that represent life as a British musician in the EU as Brexit looms

This time last year we were expecting the news to be filled with nothing but Brexit for 12 months, how wrong we were. But with a no-deal now looking the most likely outcome, what will this mean for UK musicians living in the EU? We caught up with Joel Phillips, bassist in The Kecks (who recently appeared on The Joyzine Advent Calendar with their excellent rendition of Mud’s ‘Lonely This Christmas’) – born in Doncaster but now living in Hamburg for his thoughts and to share his picks for songs that sum up where we find ourselves at the end of this tumultuous year.

I guess we probably need to start with the one thing that everyone’s been talking about this year – how has the pandemic been affecting you and the band? 

Obviously like everyone else it pretty much wiped our entire year of touring plans out, which sucked as we had a festival in Russia lined up and a few other cool things but it’s actually probably been our most productive period as a band. Songwriting wise it’s been pretty prolific because we could really focus and spend more time together working on our music as the rest of our lives were pretty much on hold. I think our live show’s probably the best it’s ever been also, we’ve been fortunate enough to do a couple of really well produced live streams for Quaratunes and Stream Of Rock and the time off from touring has really given us the opportunity to fine tune everything and explore some ideas without the constant pressure of being ready for the next show. If anything it’s kind of worked as a year out to develop as artist and we are really excited about stepping things up once we are safely able to hit the road again. It’s been like a kind of enforced sabbatical but it’s left us in a really good place creatively. 

There’s been quite a bit of coverage in the UK about how much better Germany handled the virus, particularly in the early months of the outbreak.  How has the approach seemed from Hamburg, both there and over here?

Yeah they were super quick and decisive with locking things down over here, which we reaped the benefits of as we were able to go back out and watch the football in bars and even play a couple of socially distanced shows at our beloved Molotow and in the Netherlands at a time when the U.K. was fully locked down so it was weird for me, communicating with friends and family back home who were unable to leave the house and yet we were travelling around Europe playing shows. I think it’s kind of built into the German mentality that they are very compliant and stick to rules and regulations and this allowed the first lockdown to be much quicker and more effective, and that allowed us to return to relative normality pretty quickly, months ahead of the U.K. 

We’ve recently been given a glimmer of hope with several vaccines looking like they are going to be ready to roll out soon – how are you feeling about the chances of a return to normality in 2021?

I think as artists you have to be hopeful and a bit of a dreamer, so we are hopeful that as the vaccine becomes widely available we may all be able to enjoy the joys of live music together by the summer. We’ve speculatively bought tickets from Primavera because of the incredible lineup next year, so we are hopeful that rock n roll has been given the green light by then! Nothing else comes close playing live in a nice sweaty intimidate venue, and we are all craving that connection with an audience again. Live streaming has been fun, but you can’t replicate that experience. If you could bottle that feeling you would be a very rich human being. 

Speaking of hope, Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump has seen a reverse in general global trend towards right-wing populism.  What’s the political mood like where you are?

We are super lucky to actually all live in the St. Pauli area of Hamburg which is famous around the world for its liberal and progressive leanings so we are fortunate to live in this utopian bubble when it comes to politics. Of course, Germany just like everywhere else in the world still has it’s problems with the far right, but they are always outnumbered, and often quiet viciously confronted here in Hamburg. It’s a tremendously multi cultural city with a rich cultural history of diversity and we feel like we belong here, despite us being from all over the globe. 

Amongst everything else that’s been going on, Brexit has been shambling on almost unnoticed – by the time people read this there may be a deal, a confirmation of no deal or the same ongoing uncertainty that we’ve faced since the vote.  As a British musician in a multi-national band living in Germany, how has the situation affected you so far, and what are the best and worst case scenarios for how it might pan out?

For me personally I am very fortunate that I’ve been here for a couple of years already, so regardless of what happens the terms I arrived under will be honoured. So as long as I stay here, I can remain as if freedom of movement was still in place. My great sadness comes for the next “me” because from the end of this year onwards it’s going to become a whole lot more difficult for someone to chase a dream living abroad. Working visas will be required which will be expensive and difficult to meet the criteria for, especially for people working in the arts with less of a conventional career background. I literally just lined up a job, packed a bag and booked a one way flight. How cool is that? That it was that easy to embark on an a life adventure living in another country?! It fills me with great sadness that the next me will be faced with this whole new load of restrictions, and may be put off  the dream of life abroad entirely. I could rant on all day about how immensely shit the whole Brexit situation is but I think I’d bore your readers to tears and they’ve probably heard it all before. To cut a long story short I think it’s a tremendous backwards step culturally and I only see it as a regressive move that will be retreated for generations to come. I have seen first hand the difficulties and stress that comes with the visa process as our Australian guitarist Sam has to go through this process every year, and I felt incredibly lucky to have been a European citizen and able to sidestep that whole process, but now that pride has been completely stripped away. 

Which tracks have made it onto your State of The Nation Playlist?

David Bowie – Heroes
The first one was a pretty obvious choice, and is a nod to all the real life heroes in the health service that have bravely put their lives on the line to protect us all from the dreaded virus this year. I recently had a friend who is a nurse who was hit with a huge fine for having her mask down in central Hamburg location to drink a coffee while on a break 16 hours into an ICU shift. She still had the outline of her PPE equipment firmly etched on her face and the fine was probably way more than she earnt that day. Our MP’s clapped for these heroes in the U.K and then the next day took away their free parking and refused them a pay rise. It’s just a disgrace. 

The Growlers – Going Gets Tough 
The Growlers mean a lot to us as a band as we actually met on the back of a Flix Bus on the way to Berlin to watch them play a couple years back. We figured three guys with Vokuhilas drinking beer at 10am who clearly couldn’t afford the train to Berlin were probably on a similar vibe and heading for the same place. It’s been a tough year, but this song is a beautiful reminder to just keep on keeping on with genuine passion and positivity and it’ll all work out in the end. 

The Strokes – The End Has No End 
This one has huge significance to us because it seems to pinpoint the time exactly where the world got all wonky. We are hugely inspired by The Strokes and back in March we managed to land tickets to a really intimate show in Berlin they announced at a weeks notice. They completely blew our minds and the world just hasn’t seemed right since! I went for ‘The End Has No End’ because it looked like we were through the worst of the pandemic, we even played a show at our beloved Molotow but right now it feels like we are back to square one with the pandemic. 

The Blinders – Something Wicked This Way Comes 
The Blinders are dear hometown friends of mine and I could have picked any track from their wonderful second album Fantasies of a Stay at Home Psychopath. I think they absolutely nailed the impending sense of doom and dread looming over all of us locked down with Brexit’s ugly head peering through the darkness. The whole album is essential listening.

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
Nobody does satire quite like Mr. Tillman. This song is one of my all time favourites and just completely underlines the ridiculousness of the modern world and the way society is. It’s all very tongue in cheek and hilarious despite its depressing accuracy. A couple of us were lucky enough to catch him live at the opera house here in Hamburg and it’s the nearest I’ve ever felt to a religious experience. 

King Gizzard And The Wizzard Lizzard – Superbug 
This one is pretty self explanatory, and is a direct reference to the dreaded virus. Possibly the greatest live act I’ve ever seen, just completely out of this world. Just thinking about  it now makes me miss live concerts twice as much. Incredible. Musically they are untouchable. 

B.R.M.C – Whatever Happened To My Rock N Roll? 
This one again is pretty self explanatory. A whole year of rock n roll pretty much wiped out just like that, with no real end in sight. We are pretty lucky as the government in Germany have been really supportive of the arts but we really feel for our friends in the U.K who’ve largely been left out in the cold with very little to no support and all the additional challenges and costs Brexit will bring to look forward to in 2021. We got to hang out with Anton Newcombe from The Brian Jonestown Massacre recently in Berlin who played a huge part in shaping the B.R.M.C sound and it was super inspiring that he is still every bit the razor sharp maverick genius. 

Radiohead – Subteranian Homesick Alien 
This ones more personal to me, and the way Brexit has made me feel about the U.K. as a whole. Obviously living in Germany and only really having my comfortable echo chamber of friends who are largely into music, the arts and pretty liberal in beliefs the whole thing took me completely by surprise. I’ve never felt more alien and like I didn’t belong. Being from a northern ex-mining town I was always a bit of a flamboyant peacocking outsider and unconventional but the whole thing left me feeling completely detached and on a different planet entirely.

Tame Impala – Feels Like We Only Go Backwards 
I had to have Tame Impala in their as they are probably the artist we talk about most as a band. I think this song perfectly captures the feeling as the second wave of the virus hit and everything shut down again, it feels exactly like we are right back to square one. It could also be a direct nod towards Brexit which personally I feel can only be a huge backwards step for the U.K. As someone who has enjoyed the adventure of freedom of movement in Europe I find it incredibly sad that the next “me” can’t just pack up a bag, book a one way flight and head off into Europe chasing their dreams. They’ll be faced with a whole new world of costs and restrictions, especially hard for creatives to meet and restricting people in this way is just an incredibly sad backwards step culturally.  

The Vines – Get Free 
I’ll finish off with The Vines, the ultimate anthem to summarise the angst that everyone must be feeling right now, just wanting to get back to the normal freedoms we all enjoyed before this crazy year was curtailed by the virus. I especially feel for the students I’ve been reading about, completely robbed of that once in a lifetime social happening that can be a real coming of age for a lot of  people. They’ve been charged thousands for student halls and moved hundreds of miles away from home just to be told all lessons will be remote and they have to isolate in their rooms?! That is bullshit! The universities had this planned months in advance and these poor kids could have saved a small fortune and at least been surrounded by their families. Another typical act of greed, despite the adversity we are all facing. Those kids must really want to Get Free! At least it might hopefully inspire some to write some venomous angry music!! 

Interview by Paul Maps

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