Sonic Boom Six

By paul

This is part 1 of the 11,000 word massive Sonic Boom Six interview…

Paul: Mr Barneyboom, sir, how the devil are you?
Barney: I’m very good thank you very much. I’m busy and broke but driven and happy. I’m starting to sound like an Alanis Morissette song now so its definitely time to move on to the next question.

Paul: We tend to do our little interviews with you but once a year so I figured we’d kick things off chronologically, let you build up and then vent with some killer questions at the end! So, to kick off, for those who aren’t familiar with SB6 how would you describe yourselves and which bands would you class as influences?
Barney: Hmmm, well I always say we’re a punk band. But a punk band that plays a lot of different musical styles within our approach to punk music. I guess if we’re gonna be technical the SB6 sound is basically ragga and jungle-fused ska-core music but we do play some straight hardcore-punk and reggae and hip-hop. Our main influences in terms of the vibe of the band are bands like King Prawn, the Specials, The Clash, Senser and Capdown. As for bands that influenced us, that really does range from stuff like Refused and Strike Anywhere to the Fugees and The Streets to drum and bass and grime stuff. We smashed them all together and that’s kind of what we sound like but at the end of the day, we’re a punk band. That’s what stands behind it all and that’s what’s important to us in the way we approach the music we write.

Paul: Going way, way back – the band formed in 2002 from the ashes of Grimace. When you sat down and first started jamming on the project, what did you set out to achieve musically?
Barney: Well, Grimace split in the middle of 2001. We did a goodbye gig and stuff, we were all just sick of it. But we were still mates and were doing different music stuff but were still in touch. But at the end of 2001 at first it was just something I was putting together for a college thing. I had to write three or four tunes which were all different styles. So some former members of Grimace came in to help me with that and a lot of the stuff we did was different than what we had been doing previously. We really enjoyed what we did and I sent the tape out which had three tunes on it. Kevin from Do the Dog and some other people heard it and it got a good response and one of the tracks ended up on the Dog the Dog This Are UK Ska volume 3. We got offered a couple of gigs with Capdown and all wanted to do them so that was that. I always had the idea for a band called Sonic Boom Six way before the end of Grimace. I think I knew what I wanted to do with the whole thing but the way it happened was quite unplanned. Basically, we were just so passionately into punk, hip-hop and drum n bass at that time and were going to tons of parties and saw the huge punky reggae crossover there. It really felt like there was something happening. It was exciting to meet kids at Drum n Bass nights that had King Prawn and CapDown t-shirts on. I sound daft now because every rock night plays Pendulum and Dizzee Rascal but I think things were a little more restricted back then. I think we could see this mash-up beginning to happen across the more mainstream parts of music rather than the punk and rave squats and parties it had kind of grown through. And we were just mad, mad excited about it. And, looking back, I’m happy we went at it like we did. And it’s funny because in Manchester I went to see Don Letts at a club night in last night for instance and there was punk, hip-hop and drum n bass together and that never used to happen. Obviously things have changed and we represent that change as vividly as anything else. But the whole thing with SB6, we never wanted to be a squat-dub sound system like say Suicide Bid and P.A.I.N. Both of who I absolutely love of course, but we wanted to bring in a more polished take on punk from bands like Strike Anywhere and Rise Against and obviously King Prawn. We just wanted to be a bit more of a cutting edge, leftfield take on King Prawn really I guess.

Paul: Is the music industry inherently racist? Bands like Asian Dub Foundation led the way in the 90s/early 2000s in terms of bands representing ethnic minorities. But for whatever reason the mainstream music scene doesn’t seem to have accepted anyone except for white British people, bar a few notable people like Kele from Bloc Party. Is this just sheer coincidence or in the ‘punk’/alternative scene is it (wrongly) frowned upon to be black/Asian/Africa/whatever and like this type of music? As a band have you come up against any racist behaviour towards you?
Barney: Well, here’s a funny little story. We’ve not really encountered that much explicit racism at all towards Laila. Over the years there has been the odd racist heckle, the odd ‘fuck off home’ and stuff. But nothing more than just idiots you meet in life, it’s not like it happens all the time. But we traveled on tour the other month with Babar Luck in the van so we’ve spent tons of time with him. The amount of shit he gets on the street when we’re all popping to a takeaway after a gig or whatever is – even to this cynical bugger – absolutely shocking. He totally takes it on the chin, but you do see how much some people are still tripping about the whole terrorist Muslim thing. We played a gig in Brighton on the tour and a typical skinhead-uniform clad bloke bought our new CD at the beginning of the set. Babar joined us onstage for a rendition of ‘Ya Basta!’ and the bloke went over to Adam on our merch and said ‘Give me the money back for this’. Adam asked him why and he replied that ‘I don’t give money to people who support terrorists’. So wrap that one around your head. So I saw numerous cases of public racism towards Babar across that tour. Of course, he’s totally aware that his appearance is going to be a talking point. He’s a maverick. I think that as far as the UK music industry goes, it’s simply a cultural thing that more black and asian kids get into urban music and more white kids get into rock and indie music. The lyrics and the content of the different styles speak more closely to the individual groups. Go to any area in town and you’ll see that a certain pub will be full of white kids, a certain club will be black kids, a certain café will be full of asian kids. It’s just youth culture. I actually think that a group of black kids playing indie or punk music are as likely to get more interest than the equivalent group of white kids simply because it’s different and any angle you can sell something from works for the industry. No, I really don’t think the industry is more racist than anything else, I think having a black singer makes Bloc Party a little more distinctive and edgy than they otherwise would be, it kind of makes him a bit more of an interesting figure, one of the few black dudes in the indie music scene. But, I have to say, there have been times where comments on our music and appearance and stuff have been pretty damn prejudice. It has ranged from guys shouting shit about ‘black music’ during the set, to spitting on us, to just writing stupid things on the internet. I won’t waste my time repeating any ridiculous internet examples some kid has summoned the gumption to thump onto a keyboard and pressed ‘send’ but there are times when the only criticism seems to be that we’re not scared of going there when rapping and chatting and all that. A lot of the time, even in reviews in online fanzines and stuff, it would be the fact that we rap rather than saying we’re particularly awful at it that gets picked up. Its like that Bill Hicks sketch when the woman asks, ‘what are you reading for?’, not ‘what you reading?’ With us, even in some decent online mags it’s literally been ‘and then they start rapping’, not ‘and then they start badly rapping’. It’s the assumption that the readership will register that as a criticism that baffles me. I mean, in the past, there were bits and bobs that fell through that sound a bit cringey and a bit Ali G but I’d rather do that than the ‘Cat Sat on the Mat’ style of rapping a lot of other crossover punk bands have gone through over the years. Of course, I’m not daft, you’re free to not like our music. But we’ve been through some pretty nasty stuff against us and weathered the storm of a lot of nasty muck being thrown at us at times. We’re all fair game but have we not paid our dues? Were we lucky? Have we not worked as hard or harder as anyone else for the UK punk scene and always, and I mean always, tried to provide good interesting support bands for the fans? Obviously I’m not saying that pulling people off a dancefloor when we come on in a club means the person is racist, it’s just sometimes expressed in a bigoted way and has the kind of conservative, siege-mentality that is at the heart of all prejudice. Cos we’ve been called chavs, scallies, townies whatever just because we don’t fit in exactly with whatever it is a ska-punk bands is supposed to be or look like. But it has got me down in the past when I’m having to explain to the singer of fucking Streetlight Manifesto who we’re touring with that I don’t hate his band because some misguided music fan has twisted my words to intentionally sabotage our relationship with them. When it’s staring at you and affecting you in the real world, it can be upsetting. It’s bizarre to be privy to such spite. It goes beyond simply disliking a band’s music. At the end of the day, they well need to get out more if anyone thinks I’m a fucking ‘chav’ because I speak with a tiny bit of a regional accent. Anyway, onwards and upwards.

Paul: You’ve played Glastonbury, Leeds/Reading and toured with numerous bands across the world. Which gig stands out as the best you’ve played? If you could play or tour with any band in any part of the world who would you like to go out with?
Barney: Hmmm. Favourite gig ever. A few stand out. Obviously Reading and Leeds are the best to be fair, they are just absolutely amazing, I won’t lie to you. But, I think a few stand out to me as being particularly amazing. First was the time when we supported Suicide Machines, Howards Alias and Jesse James at the Garage in early 2005. That was the first gig where I really felt like we had been accepted by the scene at the time and were part of a bill that we felt massively at home with. I don’t think we were very good and the crowd didn’t go mental or anything but I just remember that gig as feeling like something had really been accomplished and feeling like we’d found our place in the punk thing. Another gig like that was very vindicating was the aftershow party at Rebellion 2005. We started rapping and this guy got up and started really passionately heckling – saying things about ‘black music’ and that we should fuck off home – and trying to spoil the show. A big middle-aged punk told him to shut up and everyone started cheering him on. Then he physically dragged him off the dancefloor and plonked him at the side and told him to remain quiet in no uncertain terms. Everyone enjoyed it, we had a great gig… there was a couple of guys seig heiling at the back. Pathetic.
The funniest gig ever was playing to a school and college in France on an outside stage and wholly expecting the gig to be shit and, soon as we kicked into the riff on Arcade Perfect, the kids just went for it. And I mean pogo-ing, pits, crowd surfers, it was fucking unbelievable. I was crying with laughter. If we could tour with any band in any part of the world a US jaunt with someone like Less than Jake or Reel Big Fish or Rancid would be extremely productive I’d have to say. I’m thinking with my business head on there. But in terms of something that would be cool I’d really love to do some shows with Gogol Bordello or Skindred, because I think their crowds would probably dig what we do as much as the ska-punk crowds do. An Asian Dub Foundation tour in Europe would be lovely too.

Paul: You recently toured the US, how did that go?
Barney: Awesome. The great thing over there is that we’ve been able to go over as almost a finished product and not have the complications of growing up in public. At the beginning of our existence in the UK we went through a very public period of being completely bobbins. There were always the kids that liked us and picked up on what we were doing but I know we were probably quite irritating at times because even though we were bad we performed like we thought we were the best band on earth. But that was just us trying to perform. A lot of people have forgiven us but there are still promoters and fanzines and stuff we still have a strained relationship with because of going out there too much when we weren’t firing on all cylinders. We’ve never played a show in the States where we’ve been completely duff so having that chance to arrive as the finished product is amazing. And also, because we’re on a small label over there and there isn’t as much as the genre-snobbery as can slip into the UK… we’ve bizarrely found ourselves in the position of actually being a ‘cool’ punk band. Something we’ve never, ever been allowed to be in the UK. It’s funny to see UK kids on US ska forums trying to slag us off and tell Bomb the Music Industry! that he shouldn’t play with us and stuff when we’re good friends with Jeff and them. He’s been really supportive of us and is into what we do so it all seems a bit daft. I guess over there, there isn’t the cultural baggage that comes with our vocals and kids saying we’re chavs and shit, they just go bonkers to ‘Piggy in the Middle’ and mosh and we play with cool punk and hardcore bands and it’s totally boss. We did a few weeks in March then did a huge six week tour in October. Basically, we’re getting over in the East Coast in New York and Boston and Connecticut but the country is huge. We’ve played with some good bands like The Pilfers, Voodoo Glow Skulls, the Toasters, BTMI! and Big D and the Kid’s Table so we went into it the right way. We basically did three weeks of tough gigs around the West and South with a band called Chase Long Beach who are cool but those gigs were a little more starting from scratch and that was difficult. But it was a great experience and we did make some good contacts and stuff. I think the trick is to keep at it, we’ve got several plates being balanced at once but we’re hoping to go back soon. Any thoughts that kids there wouldn’t ‘get it’ in terms of us mixing the stuff in that we do were quashed from the moment we played the first note of the first set. They not only get it, they seem to be really attracted by it cos we’re unique over the and rather than ska-punk being sneered at like it is here, it’s a bit more of a case of it being somewhat dormant. But there are some great ska and punk bands in the US like We Are the Union, Tip the Van, Murphy’s Kids, Fatter than Albert, Knockout, The Fad and Public Access whose last show we played and who really influenced the more hardcore songs on our new record. So I think a lot of kids are into someone bringing back a style which is ‘theirs’ and adding something UK to it. Maybe that’s the reason why the kids over there don’t wanna listen to our UK bands that sound exactly like American ones!

Paul: Do you think the band has developed and matured as songwriters over the course of the last few records? Are there any songs you’ve written/recorded you now won’t play or are embarrassed about listening back to them?
Barney: There isn’t anything that we won’t play because that would be hypocritical of us I think… we’ve always sold ourselves as being very pragmatic, a band ‘for tha kidz’ kind of thing so to start rejecting our old stuff would be a little bit contrary to the spirit of it all if they want to hear it. We’ve all been that disappointed 15 year old watching Red Hot Chili Peppers or whatever and wanting them to play an old punky tune and having to listen to one of their turgid pop ballads. If enough kids ask us to play a song, we’ll always end up playing it. We’ve written the equivalent of four albums really so there is a lot of stuff there in the early material that I hear and might cringe at the daft vocals or the recording or whatever a bit but I kind of came to terms with that recently what with the rarities album coming out. I guess if you embrace something instead of running away from it it’s gonna be less embarrassing in the long run. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. If I couldn’t laugh about us, I’d have given this up long ago. The only song I have a bit of a weird relationship with is ‘Blood For Oil’. It just so happened that one of our best tunes was one with lyrics that from the outside might appear a bit crass and typical bandwagon politics or whatever but then again if I felt like that at the time then it’s valid. So look at it like that and it’s a tune that sums up how a lot of people felt at the time so we still play it. Cos kids want us to and we’re not about denying the fans that come to see us that want to hear it.
I think we’ve undoubtedly matured as songwriters over the years, to be brutally honest, at times possibly too much. From the feedback we’ve got we discovered that mature songwriting isn’t really what the fans of Sonic Boom Six want! I mean, we’ve always been able to write songs but that’s not really what we’re about. We fucking loved ‘While you were Sleeping’ but it just wasn’t going over live and the reaction to that was lukewarm. The kids that like us in general want an exploding dayglo punky rap-rock cartoon with its own attitude and its own way of playing lots of different styles of music. I can see that now. But we got scared of our own ideas. The kids that like us like the bits that major subsidiary record labels have told us to get rid of. And they love the bits that other people that dislike us pick on us for and ridicule. We mellowed out a bit for Arcade Perfect and to a certain extent it definitely quashed a lot of the hatred we used to get on the internet and such but it also quietened down the clamour of our supporters. It’s easy to lose sight of your supporters! I think maybe we’d rather everyone was slagging us off than not talking about us, I guess we’ve always been like that. So maturing as songwriters isn’t something we’re massively interested in – Ben can write an amazing song like someone else writes a shopping list. That’s what Babyboom is for. I just think the future of us is to distill the idea of Sonic Boom Six and what we’ve created and nail it on a record. We need our music to be better, not necessarily more mature. And that idea is what our new album City of Thieves encompasses. It’s all the best bits of the Boom and more.

Paul: Are you bothered about popularity? What’s more important to you, being popular and selling records or artistic integrity? Can music be both popular and an art form?
Barney: We want to be popular and have our own brand of integrity. And not in a popularity contest way but its really cool to have lots of kids at your gigs and lots of people digging what you do. I don’t think we would have to go back on our artistic integrity to sell records, cos we’ve never been about ‘integrity’ in that kind of way. I think the kids that like us know we’re real, we really need this and feel this and the mix of music we make always sounds like us and has our own vibe and humour and idiosyncrasies. It isn’t necessarily going to sell millions of records and we really don’t get bogged down in the ‘artistic’ debate with regards to SB6 cos it really isn’t an arty band. I think our integrity kind of comes from a different place. It comes from stubbornly being ourselves. People come to respect that. People are coming round to us cos we’ve been around a while. What is weird is that our tendencies go into the more leftfield directions in terms of what we do and listen to. With SB6 we’re almost being consciously mainstream, mad as that might sound to someone who thinks we sound like a big clusterfuck. So the artistic integrity of the band comes from the fact there are certain things we do and feel and believe as a group of people that we would never turn our backs on. And the kids that know what we’re about know what those things are. I’m not going to put them in a list only to go back on them later and have kids pick holes in them like Rancid and Against Me! or whatever. Put it like this, we always said there was much more important debates than whether or not to sign to a major label but I guess we will never create music that a major label wants. So I don’t know if that’s integrity.

Paul: For many years there appeared to be a glass ceiling for UK bands. Capdown managed to probably reach the ceiling but never really broke through. Whitmore and Howards Alias were two bands who seemed to be on their way towards the top and then fell apart. Do you feel that glass ceiling still exists? If so, can a band from the ‘punk’ scene ever smash through it?
Barney: If we want to talk about the whole glass ceiling thing, it’s pretty clear that if we’re not nuzzling up against it, it’s fast approaching. But the idea that it’s there to stop and contain anyone is very telling of our monocular views of our own little island and its massive importance. I think the whole idea of this ceiling is counterproductive and disingenuous– it’s not a solution to a problem to blame it on an imaginary piece of glass. The problems of attempting to play the game here outside of the ‘traditional music business model’ – get signed, get an advance, get tour support, hope to recoup – are separate and complex. Over-reliance on the UK territory, lack of media support for our certain genre of music, tour strategy and planning are separate business issues to be faced and dealt with. They aren’t some conspiracy by the man and the NME to keep us in place with a magic piece of glass. The paradox of the ‘glass ceiling’ that a lot of smart kids that talk about it seem to miss is that it proves grassroots support for punk music exists. And grassroots support for more leftfield indie music exists. But there is no major-label baiting rock band glass ceiling because it’s all or nothing to a certain extent. If you go from heroes on the cover of the magazines to yesterday’s news in the space of a year and all the moneys been spent there is no one at your gigs and that’s it, you split up. At least in the punk and underground music sphere bands are able to maintain a steady base of physical support and the idea of ‘going to gigs’ as a ethical and social concept is discussed beyond the idea of simply going to see your favourite band. So the fact that we can pull 300 people into a room isn’t something we need to get upset about. Why should I expect any more than that in the UK if that’s actually more numbers than a lot of the amazing punk bands from elsewhere in the world like Strike Anywhere do? Are RX Bandits, Strike Anywhere, Streetlight Manifesto and Propaghandi against a glass ceiling? No, no one would really say so because they are internationally recognised acts and they play their music in rock clubs. But, lo and behold, in terms of the UK things were exactly the same for Capdown if not better. There was no glass ceiling, they simply reached a level which was – truth be told – really high for such uncompromising music. Why would Capdown be up on Top of the Pops if the Suicide Machines never were? You can always point to Gallows but there will always be exceptions to the rule and for all intents and purposes, they are more of a rock/metal band than a punk band. What I’m talking about goes for all those bands we grew out from… Capdown, Howards Alias, Adequate 7 and a lot of others. Why would any of us expect to be more popular than the bands that were influencing us? A punk band is highly unlikely to establish a career outside of the traditional music industry in the UK alone. So once the monster of the glass ceiling is replaced with a bit of logic, we’re getting somewhere. All the forums and fanzines and back and forth in the UK are all very well and good but if you care about being truly accepted within that little circle but at the same time want to have a career in music you’re dead in the water. It is very very seductive to cater to that niche. But if you pull out a map of the world and look how little the UK is, stop caring about who the circle of kids on the internet think is ‘rad’ this week and chow down on some hard and boring budgeting and business planning and accept the fact that you’re going to have to slog away half the year in territories who have no idea who you are, then things become a little more constructive. And that’s the glass ceiling out of the way.

Paul: Do you think bands are more relaxed in the 21st Century about ‘selling out’ than they ever have been? Do you think it’s become acceptable, even at DIY level, to sell records and be a success or do you think this is a reason bands are either held back or hold themselves back?
Barney: I think ‘selling out’ simply in regards to major labels is a pretty crass concept, it’s only something that kids that don’t really have to support themselves seem to throw around. I don’t think there are that many kids who would hate on a band simply for signing to a big label anyway; it’s more about the band’s conduct once they’re on it. If you’re going to put your heart and soul into a band, you have every right to feel betrayed if they seem to become hypocrites. Everyone knows if a band has sold out. A band has sold-out if they abandon their fans for their own reasons, or to go back on something they represented because it’s convenient for them at the time. It isn’t simply measurable on one particular scale. It might be going from playing interesting, unique funk-rock in the middle of a major label grunge explosion to playing insipid, turgid stadium ballads a few years later. It could go from touting yourself as the representatives of a DIY punk ethos to making radio friendly rock music that doesn’t have anywhere near the quality of your early stuff. It isn’t garnered by any rule of thumb, you as a fan can hear it when a band drops off. I guess the truth is somewhere in the middle, it gets as ridiculous when people start doing the ironic ‘up the punx’ to take the piss out of any attempt at debate about a band’s integrity as it does people jumping on Farse’s back for accepting a guaranteed fee at a gig they had been booked for months in advance, as if they’re the only band to ever do that. Both are cases are kids trying far too hard. I guess what I’m saying is that I do accept that kids can feel betrayed at band’s selling out. It’s just a bit ugly in the amount some kids revel in the negativity. A lot of kids obviously get such a perverse pleasure and clique mentality in slagging off Against Me! for instance that it gets very peculiar. It’s like they love to hate them.
In terms of the asking about success, I think Gallows are a good example of a band that were white-hot in the underground scene for about three months, with kids passionately loving and raving about them, then a lot of those same kids suddenly started slagging them off when they got that period of mega-hype. It’s silly, but it’s the nature of the beast… if you’re an underground scene kid you like underground bands. Anyone can see that was ridiculous because they were always the same band, it’s not like they changed. So, what can you do? You lose some kids and they gained a whole lot more so I doubt it keeps them awake at night. I guess there are a lot of bands that stay within the DIY scene and it’s very seductive within all that to tout how anti-success you are and how you’re doing it the right way and everything but it’s a very easy thing to say. It’s like, oh I could be successful but I don’t because I don’t want to. So I just play gigs to the same post-uni crowd and we all heckle each other and tell in-jokes and release 300 copies of our legendary-on-the-internet EPs on testicle-coloured vinyl. You see, I dunno if it’s just Emporer’s new clothes. I’ve heard a lot of out-of-tune, badly recorded folk music and bands pretending to be Leatherface for the last 5 years that the same circle of 250 people are telling me are classic records. Gallows were successful and broke away from it all because they are hugely marketable and fucking brilliant. Simple. If you don’t see that, well… it is very easy to be a band that attributes your whole ethos and point existing to the fact that you don’t want all the plebs to like you. Some of those bands I believe, some I don’t. Ultimately, I don’t think many of the bands that I’m thinking of could go and play in front of 3000 football fans at a festival in Italy and have the capacity to get people dancing. That’s something we’ve learnt to be able to do. And that’s something I feel proud of as a musician and artist, whether or it gets respected in the context of a DIY punk band.

Paul: On a related note, why is it acceptable to pay a touring band £50 a show? That amount hasn’t changed in years yet the cost of touring has rocketed! Do you think bands are priced out of extensive tours because promoters/agents don’t pay the going rate?
Barney: I guess the £50 is a nominal gesture. If you’re getting £50 a show, you’re obviously at a point where you need to do the show more than the people need to see you. Soon as you start making money on the door, you’re gonna get more money. I think it’s fair enough really. Unless you’re the band making the money, the £50 is just investing into the band to let it exist and develop it enough so that hopefully one day that’s the band pulling the money in. I don’t think we’ve ever done many £50 gigs though, we kind of went to £75 quite early on but obviously, every now and then, like a big support or whatever you get less. I guess some promoters pay bands so little because they’re making so little on the door. It varies so much.
I definitely think that big agencies attempt to price bands out of big tours. Cos it’s all one big treadmill and they want the big bands with the big tour support, it’s just the business. They don’t make it easy for independent bands. But I guess you get £50 for playing with Reel Big Fish every night or whatever because you’re not the band pulling the kids there and it’s a chance for you to play to lots of new fans, so you take it. I don’t really think that it should stop a band though, you need to be prepared to make nothing at the start so that you can tour and make more fans and get better. Then you’ll become a bigger band. But you’ll still be earning nothing!

Part 2 coming soon…

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