What a class fucking act. Barry Ashworth is a true gentleman of the old school – part reprobate nutter, part steamrolling firebrand, part poet, part filthy rotten caner and part balls nailed to the amprack musical alchemist. His notorious, freewheeling Dub Pistols have been painting the world a gloriously reckless shade of ska punk tinged spannered sunshine for close on 20 years since Barry charged in headfirst with a massive bag of pills, a heaving slice of inspiration and a DIY against all the odds steely let’s fucking go grit that was punk’s true legacy. Riding epic highs and lows with a consummate and thoroughly intoxicated grace, overcoming trifling details like a complete lack of musical technique, he has managed to forge the Dub Pistols through mayhem’s fire into a genre bending synthesis of gorgeously rich and decidedly dangerous musical soul. As hip hop dances across all embracing dubby basslines, backflips into an urban breakbeat and rides the brass section back out into a funk soaked groove, Barry has somehow shaped the chaos into an awesome wellspring of life affirming creativity and a deep, rippling warmth. Mind blowing live and relentlessly kissing the razor’s sweet edge, the Dub Pistols rip through the entire spectrum of musical flavour peppering pure party assault with sizzling roots driven skank and a twinkling wink to the essence of so many cultural currents – and that’s before his DJ sets smash you sixteen ways to sabotage. We caught up with Barry for a quick, beautifully irreverent retrospective – and remember kids – if in doubt – just neck a load of fucking pills. What could possibly go wrong.
Can you give us a bit of early back story
Well I was basically a young upstart from South London who grew up in the same road as Carl Cox and went to school with him and Paul Oakenfold at that now infamous cradle of chaos – Carshalton Boys, and apart from doing a few backdrops with Oaky for the local town hall it only really started to come together when we all piled out to Ibiza in 1987, just before the summer of love. Got there, got involved, got our first load of pills and that was it for the season – we never made it home till the end of the year. At which point of course there was no turning back and we stepped to and started throwing parties back in London.
Now obviously, during my tearaway toerag phase, I’d gone through all the eras, starting off as a Specials bum at a pretty early age, down to the two tone suits, the braces, the boots and the old donkey jacket but by the time acid house hit, I’d done my time as a mod, a skinhead, a casual and in the whole jazz funk scene. The Specials and The Clash were my primary influences, but the fact remained that back then, there was this sense that the ability to get involved in music was very much a middle class thing – that the barriers were in full effect and it wasn’t until we got out to Ibiza and started chucking a load of pills down our throats that things started to change and the DIY mentality came to the fore. Then suddenly, as you were looking at bands like the Mondays and the Roses starting to kick it and legging it about inspired to the eyeballs setting up parties and putting on bands that you began to realise anyone could do it.
How did that very political, very ‘let’s tear it all the fuck down and smash it senseless’ attitude survive contact with ecstasy for you
Well for starters, you’ve got to look at the big football influence on the acid house scene, and what happened to firms and hooligans when ecstasy dropped. At that stage, wherever you went, whatever city it happened to be, you were heading for a punch up until the pills and the acid house movement exploded through the terraces and before you knew it, you were being hugged by a local supporter who 6 months ago would’ve been glassing you, at an illegal rave on his home turf in cities up and down the country. So although a lot of the aggression and the tribal hostilities were sucked out by the smileys, this was still the turmoil of the Thatcher years and rebellion was as visceral as ever – it just took on a different form. So rather than smashing the shit out each other, we suddenly had a unity that channelled rebellion into a much more powerful, national movement of underground illegal raves in massive fuck off warehouses. Personally I was more about the alternative than the acid house on a musical level – it was the Mondays, the Roses and people like the Waterboys that I was more into and the club nights I used to run – Naked Lunch and Monkey Drum were definitely more geared to that sound. But the lines blurred massively at this period, and everything came together across class, culture and racial lines as away days with your football team for a tear up turned into home and away shouting Eeezer Good and the firms you were out to fucking murder last season telling you how much they love you down the same club after the game. Every kind of barrier, every kind of divide dissolved away into an epic gurn – it was beautiful.
Looking back at people like the Specials and the Clash and the legacy of things like Carnival – how unique did mass West Indian immigration in the 50’s make the UK understanding of music.
Music is constantly being shaped by fresh influences coming into the mix – and don’t forget that the whole hip hop tradition in the States came out of a similar wave, but there’s no doubt that it shaped what was happening in Britain massively. I remember heading up Petticoat Lane market for all my reggae and my Greensleeves stuff then coming home and whacking it on the turntable where my dad was listening to his Bob Dylan. He’d be pissed up straight from last orders and drag me about the gaff yelling ‘what you listening to this shit for – here y’are lad – get some Dylan down ya’. But there was never any element of racism – it was purely a generational thing and our generation had access to a far wider spectrum of musical influence as mass immigration brought its own soundtrack with it and not only did that start to change what people were listening to, but it got absorbed into ever shifting fusions – the punk reggae synthesis being a classic example.
So were you a musician at this point then
No I was a football hooligan
So what happened
I wouldn’t even call myself a musician now. It was a combination of necking a shitload of pills and realising that all this was for the taking and I suppose in many ways, it was the Mondays that really brought just how accessible it was into focus. Now much as I love the Happy Mondays, they were absolutely dreadful live…..and brilliant for it, but looking at them on stage, it dawned on me that if they could do it, anyone could take a crack at it. So we literally just started the band with that punk headspace of anything goes. We were fucking abysmal, but because we were running clubs, our third gig was a sellout at the Astoria that was filmed for television. We were getting all kinds of top reviews flooding in and in true British press style, when we were rubbish, they were shouting from the rooftops that we were the next big thing and the minute we got good, everyone said we were shit.
Does having a set of brass balls make up for an early lack of musical ability
Without a shadow of a doubt. It’s about having the front to just get up and start doing it and not feeding into the fear on the way. As I say – just look at the Mondays. The show was an utter shambles and everyone was off their head, so on the one level, it’s bloody awful plain and simple, but then it’s that raw energy that brings a show alive and carries it when the actual technique side of things is out of its face. And that was exactly how we went about it – just thought fuck it – let’s steam in, see if we can’t learn our instruments while we’re at it and in the meantime, let’s just hope everyone’s too spannered to notice. A couple of us could play, but the rest of us didn’t have a fucking clue.
Speaking about the whole DIY ethos that emerged at this time, how much use were you making of the new affordable technology like samplers etc which began cutting through the reliance on established studios
Well at that stage, there actually wasn’t that much technology bar the old 950 samplers and a really shit computer, so you still did need to bullshit your way into studios. I was lucky enough to be friends with Clive Langer and having managed to talk some downtime in his studio out of him for a band called Natural Life we began blagging anyone we could lay hands on for studio time and convincing people who could actually play and owned studios they weren’t doing fuck all with that it was a blinding plan to let us in. So we’d talk them into giving us a shout when they had a hole in the schedule, and we had to be ready to get bang on it when there were some empty slots and work like fuck until they threw you out. Make sure you had a bag of pills to keep the inspiration flowing and the stamina rolling and crack the fuck on. I mean in our first recordings you can hear things popping left and right, mic stands falling over, and I tell you, I still love listening back to them because they’re so bloody awful it’s touching.
Do you think that being really out of your head gave you creative dimensions beyond front alone that being all musical and taking things all very seriously would never have given you
Well the thing was that we were trying to be musical…..we were just out of our heads. We were convinced that we were shit hot, and let’s face it, what with all the pills, and a healthy dose of delusional optimism, it sounded fucking great. The poor people who were engineering it all for us must’ve thought we were a bunch of muppets…..and they probably still do now, but then it was in their interests to make us sound good because otherwise they were just wasting their time.
So mid 90’s – you’ve got the whole big beat scene going off as the breakbeat came back into its own – how did that happen for you
I’d gone through my house years, but by this point everything was just so fucking cheesy. Leftfield were great and so were Underworld, but the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses were gone and I was bored shitless with all that ‘What’s she gonna look like with a chimney on her’ type vocal bollocks. I was signed to Charlie Chester’s label, Cowboy records as it was then and to this horrendously cheesy house label, Pulsate and then all of a sudden I heard Song to the Siren. And straight away, I thought, right – fuck that….this is what I want to be doing. It sounded completely fresh. I met up with Jon Carter from Monkey Mafia and we started going down to Wall of Sound, Mark Jones’s night and that was it – we were off.
So are you starting to break these night as a DJ or as the Dub Pistols
Well the Dub Pistols came out of the fact that I couldn’t really mix to save my life. I was more of a selecta than a beat matcher, so I would basically get the others to play over the top of me especially during the transitions so no-one would notice me potentially stacking the mixes. So as the guitars and the samplers and all the rest started layering up it began to get to the point where my mixing was coming good, but I couldn’t hear a fucking thing in the monitors as all the musicians were doing their thing, so I eventually had to sack them all so I could get a clear run at the mixes again. Jon Carter and I started doing the first Monkey Mafia record, but because I was in a deal with Pulsate, my freedom to operate was pretty limited. I had huge respect and admiration for Heavenly Records – Jeff Barrett and co – and the stuff they were putting out like Flowered Up’s Weekender, and when they offered us a deal, because of my contract with Pulsate, we got Jon to sign as the artist while I came on as the producer. Which was fine…..right up until we had a massive falling out and I was left on the outside. So I started the Dub Pistols. I was pretty fucked in the head by it all and my confidence was shot to shit, but had managed to squeeze 500 quid out of Deconstruction to go and make a record with Keith Tenniswood from Sabres of Paradise. Nothing really happened and time was ticking, so instinct kicked in and we did a load of gear and took a load of fucking pills on a 36 hour studio sesh and came out with There’s Gonna be a Riot and a monumental comedown.
I sent it to the record company, but didn’t hear back from them, so I rang them up to see what they thought. I think their exact words were ‘That’s the worst record we’ve ever heard, we think you’d better come in and see us’. So I went in with a fair bit of trepidation to find that they’d been listening to the digital dump off the sampler. Here was this big record company with ears on the digi dump thinking I’d gone all artistic and made something that sounded like an old fax machine being tortured. Pressed fast forward and the next thing you knew it was single of the week, we were darlings and we were off.
It’s basically just me. What happened was that I made a few tracks with Keith and then hooked with a guy called Jason O Brien who’d made a track I loved called Ceasefire with Derek Dahlarge. I always worked with different people, but over the course of the next two albums, Jason was definitely the most permanent fixture. But still, it was always me that brought in the other people we’d work with
But if you weren’t that formally musical – how were you writing and assigning complex parts
I had references in the shape of a huge record collection and every poet’s a thief. I’d be adding bits stolen off other records but setting them into an original context – almost like sampling – but with instruments replaying them rather than a straight lift. Everything you hear subconsciously has been taken from somewhere else and had a fresh spin put on it, and if you know what you’re about – that’s all you need – it certainly isn’t a question of writing musical scores. Although the worst thing that can happen to you is to be sampled by us because you’ll be dead 6 months later.
I’m not fucking joking. Tommy McCook died 6 months after we sampled him. So did Roland Alfonso and Gregory Issacs died a year later. It’s the kiss of the Dub Pistols.
Bloody hell – you didn’t book drummers for Spinal Tap did you
Let’s just put it this way. Our catchphrase is ‘What Could Possibly Go Wrong’
So you suddenly got really massive and began getting proper respect – to the point where people like Gregory Issacs were suicidally signing up for guest vocals………………..
No but that came later. First of all, we became successful in the UK, then we had a hit with Cyclone, then we became the NME darlings and then Norman Cook came along just as we were about to drop our first album, Point Blank, which I now call Pointless Wank. And we went from being the princes of the big beat scene to being the sound of Norman’s sweaty jockstrap where all of a sudden, no one in the UK would touch us with a fucking bargepole. Amazingly enough though, we had an uncanny stroke of luck that led to a record deal in America. Our label pulled us in and said ‘look lads – that’s it – game over – we’ve been offered this much money for you and your only real option is to go with it and head over the pond. The big beat scene was imploding, Norman went stratospheric, and we fucked off to America.
They loved it – I mean they thought we were bigger than the Chemical Brothers. It was weird, because Cyclone was a massive hit and we started doing really well, but this was when the shit first started hitting the fan for the music industry and acts were getting dropped left right and centre. We’d signed a $25,000 deal to break our second album, which as you can imagine is nothing in the American scheme of things, but while bands with bigger price tags attached to them were dropping like flies, everyone sort of forgot about us. Our manager also looked after The Crystal Method who were one of the biggest electronic acts in the States, and god’s honest truth, as he was heading in for a meeting at Death Row records, Jimmy Iovine pulled him aside and said ‘you’ve got to check this record – it’s some band called the Dub Pistols……best record I’ve heard in 15 years’. To which our manager pointed out that not only did he manage the Dub Pistols, but they were contracted to Jimmy’s own label. And in the blink of an eye, we’re signing on the dotted line of a million dollar deal. I actually just stumbled across an old article today that I’m on the upload with – How to Lose a Million Dollars with the Dub Pistols – Chocolates and Roses. Brilliant article – and we’ve been saying’ Don’t forget the chocolates and roses’ ever since – which if you haven’t worked it out yet, doesn’t mean we’re piss mediocre romantics – it’s our codeword for gear.
World tours, glory soaked success, a greenhouse the size of Holland and four years of stripping Charlie’s Chocolate Factory inside fucking out later we were at the absolute peak of the American wave, and it seemed like the perfect moment to ask what could possibly go wrong. Right around about the 11th September 2001 funnily enough. Number 2 on the Billboard charts, number one priority for the biggest record company in the world, front cover of every magazine going, and some cunt flies a fucking plane into the twin towers. And there’s me gakked out of my fucking nut in my sponsors house in Beverly Hills trying to fit a sigh of despair up a very blocked nose. And that was it – four golden years and now it was all fucked.
Lyrics about blowing up the White House and the likes of ‘Submarine sinks, Concorde falls from the sky, the tallest buildings burn and how the mothers they cry’ Nuff said really. One of those textbook OH FUCK moments. What could possibly go wrong. They offered me 150 grand to stay, but I knew that you can’t go from a major label’s priority to the back burner…. you’ll never come back. So I begged em to let me go, but after screaming matches and agonised wrangling, it finally took 2 years to break the contract, and I thought I’d be able to walk into another deal back in the UK, but it just didn’t work out that way. It took a long fucking time, and in the end, we signed to Distinctive which was a progressive breaks label and released a hip hop and reggae album. And it was hard work too, because obviously we’d just made a record, and when that hasn’t come out it takes its toll creatively and emotionally. Most bands would have called it a day, but, well, we didn’t.
So how was the DJing progressing alongside all of this
Doing alright – that’s basically how I survived. Breaks was massive and I was playing out a lot and had my Westway label on the go – still do to this day, It’s always been a funny one because obviously the Dub Pistols were well known for that reggae / ska touch, yet when I go out to a breakbeat club and bang three bells out of it, you get old ska heads and milfs turning up expecting the Specials – which ain’t gonna happen unless that’s the kind of set I’ve been booked to play.
How do the two dynamics play out for you – being locked down on your own as a DJ and feeding off a bands energy
It really depends where I am both physically and mentally. There’s times where I absolutely love DJing and then there’s others where it’s wrong place, wrong time. But then if you spend 2 years together in the pocket of a band, you can’t wait to get rid of the fuckers – so its swings and roundabouts all the way.
It’s funny because you mention breaks and how fickle fashions can be. Is saying breaks is dead a bit like saying middle C is dead?
Every form of music keeps merging. That was last year’s story – it’s all dead, and that’s often where things get interesting. The worst thing that can happen to you is being flavour of the month, because guaranfuckingteed, you’ll have a little ride but come the next month you’ll on your way back down to the bottom. Look at big beat which was beaten over the head with a stick until it all went tits up and finally reformed itself as new skool breaks. Same things been happening to breaks – the wheat comes away from the chaff and suddenly you’re underground again which isn’t a half bad place to be.
What’s happening musically with the Dub Pistols at the moment then – heading down a specific angle or pure mash up?
Punk is an ethic not a sound. I can’t stand punk bands who make punk music because they missed the entire fucking point. Punk is a headspace – a way of seeing the world where you blend and fuse everything then let it rip. There’s obviously a lot of dub running through our veins, whack in a load of hip hop, then I’ve got Alabama 3, Terry again and all sorts of flavours in the cauldron at the moment – now I’ve just got to make it make sense. But we divide our own crowd, let alone anyone else.
Do you think that without that underlying punk mentality of ‘fuck it – let’s just push on through no matter what catastrophe lies ahead’ you’d have died a death long ago
Totally. No band could’ve put up with the shit we’ve been through, and as I’m talking now, half the band are in rehab or on suspension or god knows what. We’ve got a squad, not a band. But I think the fact that it was always essentially just me gave it a longevity it would never have had if there had been 4 chiefs. Which if you look at it another way means that there’s no-one to storm out and leave apart from meself. I was on the verge of calling it a day yesterday after a rough weekend and a biblical fucking comedown. Told the label – told everyone who would listen to fuck off. Then I came round, had a look at my options and thought ‘oh dear, time to get some humble pie on the go’
So on a late Tuesday to Friday basis, how optimistic are you looking forward
I think we’ve gone through the rollercoasters now, and really understood the nature of the industry – and nowhere is harder than the UK, where they just love smacking you round the head with your own stick. We’ve found our niche now, and we’re a good festival band who’ll headline things up to 10,000 people sort of thing, but we’ll never headline Glastonbury.
Yeah but would you actually want to headline Glastonbury knowing what you know now.
I’d be a lying cunt if I said no. Course you’d love to drop down off your helicopter with your silver suit on and the searchlights flashing, but there’s nothing wrong with sneaking in the back in your clapped out van
Yeah but playing a smaller stage to people who actually know why they’re there
Well this is it. And 99% of our shows are fucking great, and then every now and again the wheels fall off and it’s a complete shambles. And people know that about us, and actually enjoy the fact that you never quite know what’s coming next.
Isn’t that element of risk where it could all go tits up…..
No, it DOES go tits up……part of what makes something live and keeps the rush of being on stage and going to live gigs electric You’re not allowed to be a hell raiser anymore. I remember waiting to play at Bestival, when the people running the stage told us told us they wouldn’t let us anywhere near it. God bless Rob da Bank and John Hughes who swiftly said ‘bollocks, this is our festival, and whatever the fuck happened to rock n roll’. Apparently we’d played their stage before and been filed away under ‘Liability’ when their stage got wrecked, but it was all in good fun.
Are you seeing a lot of the old heads being replaced by young PR types
Young PR types and all the trappings of a massive corporate business. It used to be illegal raves, and now its just money, control and a shitload of old bill. Spy cameras and snatch squads everywhere. Fuck me has the vibe changed.
Can you see this recession throwing up the same kind of creative rebellion as the end of the 80’s and early 90’s
Oh definitely. They’re cutting everything like its going out of fashion and I can totally see it mirroring Thatcher. And rebellion won’t be far behind, and as ever, it’ll probably start in music