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Smiling Smash: An Interview with Cathal Smyth, a.k.a Chas Smash, of Madness
Photos and graphic design by Bob Timm, property of About.com.
All Rights Reserved.
On July 15th, 1999, I had the pleasure of meeting Chas Smash at Westside Studios. In this interview, Chas speaks at length about the inspiration behind Madness, the early days of Two Tone, the new album, and his new passion: getting in touch with fans on the Internet.
BT: Going way back to before Madness, when you were first getting into reggae, how would you describe the whole scene you were into, the early reggae skinhead scene? And how much did that influence you?
Chas: Well, I had a cousin that was, I think, three years older that me, who I really looked up to. He was a really sharp dresser skinhead-wise, and I was just at that age when I was too young to be out and about on my own, and I couldn't really follow the trends. I wasn't really allowed by my parents. He was a hero figure and the early skinhead dress thing was really sharp, really looked cool you know, I thought. In England, you always had certain reggae records that came in the charts. It wasn't as big as, say, Motown, but there was a few little things. The majority of the stuff bubbled up in the Youth Clubs. So for me, it was getting to the Youth Clubs around twelve or thirteen and hearing "One Step Beyond," stuff like that. And obviously that sort of stuff had happened much earlier and it was the remnants of those more popular records being played in the Youth Clubs.
BT: What years are we talking about here?
Chas: The Youth Club, maybe 71, 72, those records. Really, the ska explosion had happened in the 60s. The skinhead/ska thing was happening late 60s, early 70s, so really I got into it, you know. Once you had heard the occassional track, at the youth club; I got into it much later. We liked the style and we mixed it with Americana, dress style. And then I became a sort of collector, going back, hunting through stuff, old records and shops, getting your fingers dirty, trying to find the right cover for the single, that kind of thing.
BT: What were some of your favorite albums from the early stuff you had? or songs?
Chas: What did I really like? Laurel Aiken, "Jesse James," "Blood and Fire,..." It's so long ago, "Ten Commandments," all that stuff. All the Buster Albums were great. I'm terrible at titles. I see everything as a dancer. I don't go out of my way to remember artists or tracks. I remember all the rhythms, I remember all the breaks. The stops, the full starts, all that sort of thing. At the time I was pretty mainstream, "007, Shanty Town," all that stuff, a real big thing going on for late night cinema, watching "The Harder They Come" and "Rockers." It was a mixture you see. We also liked Roxy Music, early Roxy, Kilburn High Roads, which is Ian Dury's band. Alex Harvey...Kinks...ska was just a part of it. Though, listening to what we're doing recently, there's quite a bit of this skankin' stuff, influences in there in there definitely. My memory's terrible. I lost all my early record collection, recently. I put all my singles in storage, and I had a management company for a while, and I put the management company as my address, in storage, and I paid a year, and then I paid a half a year, and thought they'll get back to me when they want paying for storage. Next thing, my agent rang and said someone is auctioning a load of stuff; they had approached my old office, I hadn't left a forwarding address,. I had forgotten it. So everything I had ever collected, all the original singles, had gone. And that happened recently, like, two months ago. I feel quite stoic about it.
So I found that all my stuff had gone: loads of family pictures, gold discs, all the sorts of discs, the singles. I'm annoyed. I don't want to go around buying what's mine, and I thought, "What's important?". The band are working again, it's great, we're making a great album, the wife and kids. My memory is in my head you know, so to let go, it's quite good in a way. It's a shame, yeah, it's a real shame, but what can you do? it's real drag, sometimes I think I must be doing something wrong for that to have happened, but I just didn't give the right address.
BT: Going, then, into when you started with the band, with the atmosphere, the whole Two Tone movement, it has been over simplified since then. The Specials have the image of being the real hardcore political band and Madness has more of a fun image. The earlier stuff, and even the newer stuff, has humour in it, but there's still sort of dark social undertone to it.
Chas: Yeah, I think we were quite humourous in the early days, but there was a harder edge to the fan, basically. A harder edge to the whole thing, really. It was like it was an antidote to punk almost. Maybe the opposite to punk at the time, and gigs were punks, skinheads, teds. It wasn't at all pop-y. It hadn't happened yet. Chart success brings that sort of watering down of intensity from when a group starts. Invariably, you get chart success and you get some young kids coming, whereas before it was kinda heavy. The early gigs were quite heavy actually, a vibe in the air. In hindsight, it was quite good, really, cause if you can get through that, you can get through anything. Three thousand skinheads baying for blood at a concert. It's like, wow! Difficult times in the sense of the audience being a bit over the top. The Two Tone thing was fantastic. The Specials seemed to be a bit more punky and harder, but I think really a lot of it was driven by Jerry Dammers. He was the political mind. His father was a Liberation Theologist priest, so I think he came from quite a radical background, in that sense. And Selecter was more of a good time band, dance-wise, but they were pretty crazy in their own way, too. The keyboard player was a schizophrenic, tried to bite someone's ear off once. They had a fantastic start, but it was really something special, the Two Tone thing. It was great, the multicultural thing was a big deal for us, we felt we were part of a wave, you know. It was dance, it was good time, it's ideals were honourable and progressive, pretty cool. It's comraderie was strong, too, being on the coach, the three bands increased your chances of being played, the big boomers, a lot of fun. We took over every hotel, going in with loads of spliffs. We got thrown out of one, just couldn't handle it. But it was very nice, funny.
BT: Now, in terms of that whole humour and the nuttiness, the "nutty" word. I know Suggs has said in some public interviews that he doesn't like the "nutty" label for the band.
Chas: Well, it's sort of, when we started, we were Madness, we were going against the grain. We were different to everyone else around, we started spraying and painting DMs before anyone else did. We had a different image, and we didn't think of ska at that point, to be honest. When we started out, we played R&B, and ska probably because it was easy. Twelve bar stuff. And Lee wrote on the back of one of his Levi jackets in bleach, "That Nutty Sound." Just a sort of thing, and it became something more than it was intended to be. But it's nice to be able to say that, rather than we're "ska," we're this band, we're that band. Kids used to come up to me and say, oh, your mods and skinheads, you know. Who cares? And I think thing's were more labelled than tribal in those days.
BT: I think a lot of people associate the nuttiness with the comic stuff and videos, which definitely did a lot, at least in the States, to really give you guys a look.
Chas: Yeah, I think we have got that sort of niche, but that boils down to the fact that we all like a lot of attention. I think we just love being in front of the cameras. We did a photo session with a guy recently, he said, "don't smile." People smile, you're not going to get a smile from people who don't. It was hard for us not to smile. We have a good time, we enjoy it, what you see is what you get. Early on, the idea that you could be funny about serious things... it's a bit like a clown you know, a clown can say serious things in the court of a King and not get killed. With "up" melodies, you're able to drop in a more serious content, open people's ears with the humour, so you can say quite serious things. But we didn't want to be po'-faced about it.
BT: Would you say there was any direct muscial influences on that? Any "musical clowns" that inspired you?
Chas: Ian Dury was the most direct influence. He dealt with subjects that, it's like Catatonia singing with a Welsh accent. Ian Dury sung in an English accent: "Burly Bently walked to London early in the day,...half a quid mate, stand to reason." You know, it's alright to sing in your own accent, it's alright to talk about things that are in your life. Which is quite freeing. It doesn't have to be "Baby, I'm a want you..." So that was freeing. That was definitely a big part of it, that you could just speak about what happened in your life, in a normal everyday way.
BT: Taking that idea of influence the other way, with you and the band. I was going to ask you if you're aware of how much you have influenced the sound of ska?
Chas: Probably not then, cause you're so wrapped up in it. Now as time moves on, went through a phase of seeing loads of bands imitate our video style, say, and you think, oh look, they're using that from that video, and that's from that. Now it's so ingrained that you don't even notice it anymore. So many people used our brightness, everyday-ness, that it's become a staple, really, and you don't even notice it. Musically, I think we've been so sort of almost humble in our effect. We couldn't believe our luck, that everything is going so well, it never really occured to us that we'd influenced others. We couldn't believe, we were kinda gobsmacked and shocked, when No Doubt came out and the Mighty Bosstones, that we'd given them a lift in a limo year's ago. Saturday Night Live. That's the thing about history isn't it. You don't know the importance of moments till years later. It's funny, it's strange.
BT: Taking it to the Net here. You were speaking a little bit earlier of being somewhat aware of some of the stuff that's on the Net, for you and the band, how much are you aware of it and how much goes on? Do you follow it?
Chas: I think I haven't followed it, I just saw it as,... I have been concentrating on the album for so long, I've wanted this for so long, something I really thought about. I left Go Discs to reform the band. Go Discs, Go records, Beautiful South, Paul Weller, Norman Cook, a few other bands, the La's. I could have stayed, but I thought this is what I really want. So, I'm just so happy that we've done it, I've wanted it for so long, and having been with the record company, oh, I've got to get an agent for the band and all this stuff, my view has alway's been, "right, we've got to create a web site." But I wasn't so involved in the website, it was more Chris and Mark getting that together. But now that I'm on email, went to America last year, and everyone has got email, and I thought I've got to get on email and so I came back and I've only just made tentative steps in searching for sites. I'm sure Chris is more on it, the site has been updated and I don't know when it's going to start again, but we're going to sort of relaunch with the album. People at Virgin have taken it on and are really helping us so... The things I want to know is: guest book, how many hits, how many people have been visiting and the ability for all of us to update whenever we want, just to email in an update. I can't stand this inability to converse or leave stuff in real time. But yeah, I think the site has massively improved. I don't bother checking our site, I look at other people's sites.
BT: Well, that's what's difficult, the fans that do it just for the love of it are so active, it must be difficult fo you to keep up with it.
Chas: Yeah, exactly, absolutely. That's what we're working on right now, just how to make it easier for us to be, you know, on it and moving quickly. It's because we've been doing it on our own up till now, it's been sort of slow, you know what band's are like. Mark will go "Oh, can you do a piece for it?" And you take ages, and so now, when I come home, I'm on the email, have I got anything, so now I'm much more able. I'm much more up for doing it, up for being involved, so that's why I dropped my email on loads of places, thought right, let's get involved, let's get some feedback.
BT: Are you getting swamped?
Chas: Not massively, but I've figured that everyone that comes in I have to put on a group and write one message and send it out to everyone, otherwise it's a lot dealing with everyone's questions, and some people want to know stuff that, God, even I'd have to find out. Go and ask Virgin! Release dates and formats, I'm not really bothered about that, to be honest. I don't mind having a conversation, a kid emailed me the other day and said, "Are you the real Chas?" and stuff, and he was depressed and I emailed him and cheered him up, so I'm happy. It's nice to have that sort of feedback. I love email, I think it's great. You've got that safe distance, you can sit down and prepare your thought's. Sometimes you swap numbers with people and you never ring them and then it's awkward, I've left it too long. Email is so instant. I love it, yeah. Early days for me, I got ICQ and thought, oh, better stop there, too much for me right now. You know, I'll have no life. I don't know if I'll go ICQ again. I was right in the middle of this email, and this guy said Hi, I said Hi, been nice to talk to you and good night, he said Yes, and by the way... O.K, stop! You know? But yeah, it's really exciting, I think it's fantastic. And it is amazing how it brings you together with people. I was worried about it the other night, thought will it destroy some of the mystique, thought I'll have to be careful about what I say, to maintain a noble relationship. But yeah, interesting...
BT: And as far as the album, the information gets out there before the albums out...
Chas: I was thinking about that, I am writing about lyrics and songs, because I'm visiting other sites. I am aware of how slow ours is, ours is like a bloody drugged fucking elephant, know what I mean, limbering slowly towards an email. It is difficult, but it is under action. we've got someone who's been at the video, filming, to put it on and quite a bit of stuff going on, I think, which is very cool. But as I say, can't be long, can't be long now and I hope we get it all right, again it's that two way information going on quick. It's annoying me now, it's annoying me that we haven't got a guest book or a hit thing. This is what's bugging me now, just to see how everyone is moving along so fast.
BT: So taking it back full circle when we were talking about the original stuff, and playing to the skinhead audience, and how that affected the music, there's like a certain comment there on the audience and the audience today is much different.
Chas: When we arrived, you had bands like Sham 69, which was sort of a skinhead resurgence. The skinhead resurgence wasn't the sort of skinhead thing that we were into. It was more of a sort of right-wing, Oi!, not overtly fascist, but it was definitely more agressive. It's really obvious, it's sort of plainly obvious that wasn't what we were into. We weren't an Oi! band, we were happy, it was up, we were kids enjoying ourselves. It was depressing, it was partly depressing, we were naive and just thought "wow, loads of people!" Not thinking, "ow, there's load's of right-wing skinheads." But when it was pointed out to us that "you sanctioned this sort of behavior, these kind of people," we had to draw the line and say "no we're not." But how could we differenciate between a good guy and a bad guy, it's not really our job, we're a band. So we did become aware of it. And that's the thing with right-wing organizations, they latch on. If there had been a couple of black people in our band, then maybe they wouldn't have. They couldn't latch onto the Specials, but they could latch onto us, cause we were white. We used to have kid's coming up to us in the early days with the NF, you know, the National Front, a right-wing magazine, to autograph that week, assuming we were saying we weren't, but we were really. There were all these rumors that we funded by right-wing organizations. And it created a load of friggin trouble, anyway. We weren't we really weren't. We thought if we didn't comment, then we thought people would understand and, like, go away. We thought, we're called Madness after Prince Buster, the first song is a tribute to Prince Buster, we've been on the Two Tone tour.
We thought "why assume we're fascists? Why? Everyone on the Two Tone tour knew we weren't, we continued that relationship with Two Tone, we did that starvation record, which is a charity record for Ethiopia. Trouble. Yeah, difficult time really, but when you're young, you're young. But you're audience changes and now the audience is all over the place, all kinds of people.
BT: O.K. Your thoughts on London today and how different it is from when you first started?
Chas: When we first started, right... It's busier, more cars on the road, there's less kids on the street cause there's more cars on the road, but it's a great city to be in. I don't know. I live here, I've lived in the same place for twenty years, I'm not really one of those sort's of movers. I live in an ordinary, sort of working class area, I know my neighbours, they've been there for years. I'm happy trying to live an ordinary life, within what people see as an unordinary life, weird. I love being in a band and I love writing songs, and I love performing. To me it's like the high point of the whole experience, the performance, doing it. Apart from that I've sort of calmed down with the music scene, this is what we do. I do it to sustain the ability to continue to do what I enjoy. I love being with the band members, Suggs. I have fantastic conversation with Suggs, my life is greyer without his company. But then we don't live in each other's pockets, we've both got families and we get on with being families. Pretty exciting times, and America has been very exciting..
BT: Coming back?
Chas: I hope so, yeah, I've got no clue. Right now I suppose cause this [the U.K.] is our prime market, this is where it's beginning. It seems to be promotion for the first couple of singles and then the album. And we're doing some live work in December in this country, and then I think we start going further afield in the new year, so it begins then. I'd love to do a Madstock across England, Europe and America, who knows. It's probably completely impossible, but yeah, it's really enjoyable.