Most mornings on the way to work I zone out to music and let my eyes rest upon the familiar route of The Midland Metro – a light rail tram service that runs between the cities of Wolverhampton and Birmingham, ending and commencing its route over once it reaches the Snow Hill station in Birmingham City Centre. My stop is around half way along the line and up until I reach it I’m confronted with factories, small towns (Wednesdbury, West Bromwich), fallen industries, miles of concrete, scrap yards, empty football fields, deserted areas and thriving communities. I grew up in the West Midlands, so it’s not new, but despite its familiarity, the landscape still evokes mixed feelings when I gaze out at it at 6:39am each day. There’s a sadness, a real melancholy to the surrounding areas, but also a beauty – the mix of experiences, shared and personal, that make life what it is. The scenery of the West Midlands is as comforting as it is threatening.
At the start of the summer I attended Birmingham’s annual Flatpack Film Festival and saw a film about the Home of Metal, a campaign to promote the recognition of the West Midlands as a major part of music history (having spawned Black Sabbath, Napalm Death, and a ton of other influential acts that have gone on to inspire an incomprehensible amount of artists worldwide). Justin Broderick of Godflesh talked about the role that Birmingham played in shaping his work – how his music was a reflection of the violent, urban and engulfing atmosphere that surrounded him.
“I think Birmingham really has influenced me,” agrees Tom Wagstaff, when I raise the subject of how an environment can influence an artist. “Birmingham is supposed to be the second city, but as far as I’m concerned, we’re the underdog. Birmingham’s seen as a wasteland, when there’s actually this really thriving community; it may be small but it’s very strong. And I’d rather be from Birmingham than from, say, London … it’s not about being the faces, or being famous within a scene – it’s about knowing people and feeling part of a community. Through doing the music I’ve made a lot of friends. It feels like there’s a very tight contingent of them and it’s great what people do here. You only have to scratch lightly on the surface and it’s there. A lot of people blame the places where they’re from, well they don’t even blame them, they fucking bitch about it, but I love Birmingham.”
The music that Wagstaff mentions includes a trail of bands, most notably Knives and Beestung Lips. His current band, BARGEPOLE, for whom he provides vocals and guitar first hooked me at a show at they played at The Victoria a few months back. I’d heard their name via a recommendation from my friend (and incredible artist) Matt Snowden, who’d raved about their forthcoming album, about the quality of their recorded work and about the ferocity of their live shows.
As first impressions go – BARGEPOLE made a good one. They floored me – almost literally in fact, as I swerved to avoid the legs of Wagstaff as he rolled around in glass, amid a dense wall of vicious riffs, reminiscent of the Jesus Lizard (a band cited by the band as an influence) both musically and in terms of swagger. It had been a while since I’d felt that buzzed after seeing a new band, especially a new local band – although I’m never keen on the connotations of that term, but whatever.
Another gig later and I’m sitting with Tom and guitarist Jim Carroll upstairs at the Hare and Hound in the Kingsheath area of Birmingham. This time round, BAREGPOLE were supported by Snowden’s Dream Dreams the Dreamer noise orchestra and Backwards – who feature members from the aforementioned Beestung Lips – and it’s easy to see evidence of the artistic and musical community that Wagstaff talks so fondly of. With their chaotic wall of sound, Snowden’s musical cacophony is very different to the sludgy, hypnotic grooves that Backwards employ in their sound, which in turns is different to BARGEPOLE, but there’s a very definite bond between the various artists in the building (including constant Brum-championing internet genius Pete Ashton who provided the beautifully insane DJing for the evening) and a sense that the people here are doing their stuff (music, art, whatever) for the right reasons.
“Tonight was a step in the right direction for us,” Tom offers about the evening’s gig. “I mean, the last show you saw us at … I mean, people use the word ‘punk rock’ and talk about passion … but at the end of the day, I was pissed out my mind at the last show.” Having played this latest show sober, he talks about it being a turning point. “If you’re drinking and it’s not fun anymore and you’re still playing the music just because it’s something you’ve done your whole life, there’s no reason to be doing it. But tonight – it’s an epiphany – because I used to play music sober and I used to fucking enjoy it, and it was really, really nice to do that [tonight].”
The idea of excess and the fallout from such is a subject that Wagstaff seems to have spent a fair amount of time thinking about. It’s dealt with in the lyrics of one of their songs, Sinners. “Sinners is about spending every weekend and spending every second of that weekend trying to cram in as much as you can, acting like a rockstar because it’s the only time you get to do it and I find that a really sad existence – you have to spend the weekend being yourself or what you perceive to be yourself for just that little amount of time, which a lot of people do.” He seems in contemplative mood. “I think you need to have a kind of honesty to your life and that’s what I’m learning to do. I mean, I used to do it as well. I used to but a wrap of coke at six o’clock in the afternoon on Friday and I’d have spent about five hundred pounds by the time it came to twelve o’clock on Sunday and that’s no way for a man to live.”
The last few words of that sentence “that’s no way for a man to live” echo a line from the album and leads me on to one of my favourite things about BARGEPOLE: the lyrics. Having been lucky enough to hear an advance copy of their album, I’ve been able to listen to their songs over and over and each time there have been different lines that have jumped out and sprung up on me. There are times when Wagstaff sounds pissed off and there are times when he sounds genuinely disturbed (“I sit and shake”). His words overflow with a sincerity that’s genuinely touching but what’s really impressive is that he manages to articulate his emotions and themes (isolation, loss, frustration) in a way that doesn’t seem at odds with the frantic barrage that the band create.
Further impressive is the consistent brilliance of each of the songs that make up BARGEPOLE’s debut album – Born a Genius, Buried and Idiot. Recorded at The Lodge in Northampton, which itself sounds like a whole other story in itself – Tom talks about how the owner (who he talks of glowingly, and adds “I wouldn’t record anywhere else) provides shelter and accommodation for gay youths who’ve been kicked out of their homes – BARGEPOLE have managed to translate the intensity of their live shows onto record without losing a shred along the way. In fact, the album reveals more dimensions to the group than may come across in a gig setting. The contrast between the album’s aggressive moments (and believe me there are a lot of them) and the albums more restrained tracks make the later seem even more fragile. Sandwiched between two frenetic, vicious stabs that bring to mind various bands from Touch and Go Records’ peak years, Death Wrapped in a Blue Dress becomes even more haunting than had it stood aside tracks more similar to itself. Veering between seething attack and desperate longing BARGEPOLE’s first album is a fucking masterstroke, overflowing with hidden depths. Their music kinda reminds me of The Birthday Party, not particularly in style but in the mood and the attitude that it strikes, which is as thuggish as it is classy.
Above all, there’s a palpable kinship at the heart of the band that seems vital to its core. Wagstaff sums it up, saying “The one thing I want to do with it is just be honest with each other and be honest with everyone else around us.” What they’ve achieved with their album, suggests that BARGEPOLE are very much on track.